Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Make a deal please

Banking on typically uncompromising logic, Socrates chose hemlock. I salute his choice but cannot recommend replicating it.

But first....

As the latest gambits flew in rapid succession across the chessboard that is the Egyptian political scene, with Shater's check leading to Omar Soliman's stalemate, we the Egyptian people are now between an army Glock and a hardliner's face.

After months of opening gambits and weeks of  pawnish nudges - appealing formation of cabinet - met by knightly rebuffals - threatening disbanding parliament - parried into reprising ripostes - requesting IMF loan details - and so on and so forth, the gloves are now off.

The introduction of the equally regal Khayrat el Shater and Omar Soliman, ends the gentle, tactical moves (so gentle they were frequently understood to be the harmless quibbling of secret lovers) and signals the beginning of the end-game.

Now on show is a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled, winner-take-all rush to kill. And assuming no fraudulence, we the Egyptian people, must stop spectating and pull the trigger one way or the other.

Our top choices appear to be :

1. A revolution-insulting, 14-month throwback to a stable, secure and secular sadism (Soliman reportedly offered the CIA a suspect's arm in response to their request for a DNA sample)


2. A potentially freedom-limiting, Koran-thumping, Israel-provoking, bearded boardroom (Shater sounds  like he's applying for leadership of an investment bank not a country)

I say "potentially" in Shater's case for a purpose I will come to in a paragraph or so. Hang on.

We pretty much know what Soliman means. His history and school of thought speak for themselves. His presidency would replicate Mubarak's with human rights abuses and corruption galore and little or no development on the democratic front. On the upside, it would send a comforting signal to our cousins across the Sinai that "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose", and allow SCAF to maintain its cozy, regionally stabilizing relations with our benefactors in the US. Funds (IMF, World Bank, Gulf investors etc...) may well flow freely again, but possibly/probably into the same old pockets. On the street it would be chaos, with revolutionaries blaming Islamists, Islamists (violently) blaming the army and the bread queues getting longer and longer.

That's the Soliman story.

Back to Shater's hanging "potentially" (excuse the pun)

Islamist front runner Shater represents a body which does not recognize Israel and, despite assuring trips across the Atlantic, he has consistently and increasingly elegantly, dodged questions on his own recognition of the Jewish State, arguing his personal view is irrelevant given Egypt's formal peace treaty and his interest in moving Egypt's rule from individual to institutional.

We are not sure what Shater (or Mohamed Morsi, Aboul Fotouh, el Awa or even Abu Ismail) would really mean for Egyptians. Ostensibly, they are all (with the possible exception of Aboul Fotouh and perhaps El Awa) radicals in moderate clothing. Yet if you listen to the rhetoric, the right to the two Bs - bikinis and booze - is safe in any of the their hands. With hardliner Abu Ismail's exception, they all promise "a civil state based on Islamic broad guidelines", with only the slightest of nods towards the more radical among their constituencies.

If for no other reason than considering the next elections, any Islamist president would not touch personal freedoms nor minority rights. Hijab will not be enforced, usurious banks will not be shut down. In fact an Islamist government/president would probably focus all energy on the economy for the first four or five years after re-establishing internal security.

But the problem with Shater et al is not internal. After all, every single litmus test from the 2005 parliament to  the Constitutional amendments referendum and the 2012 parliamentary elections says the Islamists own close to 80% of the active street. (The MB only got 88 parliamentary seats in 2005, but were only allowed to contest the first round's 112 openings, and 88 out of 112 yields an eerily familiar 78%)

The problem with the Islamists lies abroad. Should they win, the pragmatic Americans may well deal with them, but it will be the cold discomfort of a forced relation, not the warm closeness of old (which Soliman's win would automatically recreate). More dangerously, an Islamist government in Egypt, historically and ideologically close to the one in Gaza and already promising closer ties to Iran would send shivers up Israel's spine.

History tells us the Israelis don't  grab a hot water bottle when they shiver, they get busy.

It is no coincidence that Israel claimed rockets were fired from the Sinai and threatened retaliation, albeit rather sheepishly, as soon as Shater announced his candidacy and then conveniently forgot the incident as soon as Soliman announced his.

And so where does that leave me and my 84,999,999 compatriots?

Well, in a nasty position to be frank.

Most seem unaware of the regional implications and see the situation as either:

A fight between the evil, domineering army and the puritan Islamists


A fight between the evil, domineering Islamists and the patriotic army.

If I were Socrates I would pick the unconfirmed evil of the Islamists (regional stability be damned), over the six-decadely confirmed evil of military dictatorship. But first, I am not Socrates and second, I have to live here, all the sage had to worry about was death!

I am not going to propose that we should base our vote on what Israel may or may not do, nor on our estimate of which is the lesser evil, the AK-47'd guy prodding you into a detention center or the man ending your dream of the perfect tan.

Either winner means Egypt loses and it looks deadlocked.

Several candidates with considerable followers have already announced their belief that Soliman can only win through fraud and have promised a second revolution in that case. A second revolution which may not be as peaceful as the first and which Egypt can't afford, literally.

At the same time, the army under external pressure and the threat of an Islamist stranglehold on parliament, presidency and ultimately cabinet will not sit by and watch Shater win.

Given the complexity of all the internal and external variables, it is not as simple as one will win and the other lose, we all shake hands and go for a coffee.

There is a way out though. A solution, which I hope the wise and connected will hear and heed.

A deal (dirty as the word has become) needs to be made.

In a clash of the two only real powers in the country, the only loser is the country itself, no matter who wins.

We need a deal which:

a.  Allows elections to run free of fraud. (Any messing about could be disastrous both immediately and in the longer term), and
b.  Leave the army in complete control of its national security responsibilities and its economics (they have all the tanks, so let's be reasonable)

Such a deal might look like this:

The establishment of a National Security Council headed by Field Marshall Tantawy or Soliman, and made up predominantly of military and intelligence representatives with a smaller number of  parliamentary National Security Committee members and an even smaller number of civilian specialists.

The NSC would be responsible for all national security related matters which the statute of its establishment would define. It would have responsibility for, under presidential oversight, of all national security matters. It would further be responsible for reporting to the National Security Committe at parliament on the army's budget. Finally the NSC would play an advisory role for strategic foreign relations.

A truly free and fair presidential election which all previous evidence says would lead to an Islamist in the Egyptian White House.

Apart from the authorities enjoyed by the NSC, all remaining authorities to be split by constitution between President and Prime Minister with parliament having the right to appoint the cabinet. In order to remove cabinet parliament needs a 75% majority ensuring no one party or faction has complete control over government.

This kind of setup seems to me the only way to avoid:

1. A clash between the revolutionaries, the MB, the Salafis on one hand and SCAF on the other should any monkey play take place to ensure Soliman wins
2. A complete and immediate withdrawal of SCAF from politics which neither they will allow nor Egypt needs
3. Any silliness on our borders
4. Complete control of executive and legislative branches by one body
5. Setbacks to the achievement of the revolution's goals through bringing back into the presidency what is essentially a reincarnation of Mubarak.



  1. what you are suggesting effectively splits the country leadership under 2 heads. the NSC and the Persident, with the parliament as a mediator. In case ( and most likely is the case) the president and parliament are MBs, we can thus and for simplification purposes say we split the country between the MBs and Army. Although this is theoratically doabel, practically i think its extremely difficult! The moost obvious reason for example would be, if SCAf, in charge of forgien relations and security strike a deal with israel or continue friendly relationships, the president, parliament or cabinet may object! and rightfully so! and would an agreement with israel include trade? tourism?? and arent those interior affairs? but if the SCAF has no power to inforce any of its forign affairs direction or policies internally, then whats the purpose? this is just a small example of trouble. National bodies dont work independently! they work interdependantly! and the decision of one entity will have to be executed by another! how will we acheive that if they have two different bosses! each with a completely different mind set, agenda and prespective!..

  2. beautiful, realistic , pragmatic and applicable ya Hatem, needs to take place behind closed doors and come out as a final done deal, no place for amaterus to scream, mubarakists to jump in and ruin the game or illitrate revolutionaries to cry over lost sovreignty and surrendering to military priviliges. we need to understand and appreciate facts of life. question is, how can we get things moving, those connected people, how can we make them listen and convey and endorse and champion?

  3. Crisp analysis buddy..and right on the money. Fully agree with it..except that I probably have less faith than you in 2 key areas that are the cornerstones of your proposal (which in all fairness is a clever and highly attractive theory): 1- I have deep mistrust of ANY kind of Islamic regime. Doesn't require a historian to point our their winning strategy being 'etmasken ila an tatamakkan' (the moderation messages). The ideology is deep-rooted in Egypt..and we're becoming 'more Catholic than the Pope!' if you know what I mean. 2- Political arrangements aside..end of the day we're a country of Pharoahs. In our blood my friend. So whatever constitution or division of power you hammer out..for the first critical period the President - whoever it may be - will effectively wield the maximum swaying power in all respects. Now think Islamic President..and combine the above 2 points and you'll get a basic feel of my concerns on that front. Nader

  4. Thanks Hatem, very well written as usual, and you start off quite artistically kaman.

    My concern is that I can't give legitimacy to the current parliament to run the country - beyond the transitional period. Because I question the integrity of how the members got elected (bread, gas tanks, oil and sugar don't count for voter support) So, does your suggestion include dissolving this parliament and a new one takes over?

    Also, my other concern is that المركب اللي ليها ريسين تغرق and let us be clear that theoretically roles and responsbilties can be defined, but you will never be able to create a fair balance of power between those two! MB and the Generals/Suliman camp.

    Regarding external relations, I agree that the MB will cause a major screw up. Not sure where do we go from here, really.