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Council On Foreign Relations’ Max Boot On Egypt

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

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HH: I’m going to spend most of this hour, as I did all of yesterday’s program, talking about what is going on in Egypt. It is the beginning of Ramadan, of course, and so many people expect that tonight and the nights ahead are going to be very long and very difficult for the military government and the transition government in Egypt that ousted President Morsi earlier this week. Yesterday, you heard me talking with Bret Stephens and Michael Rubin and many other guests about this. Coming up later in the hour, I’ll be talking with Pete Wehner of the Ethics And Public Policy Center, and Andrew McCarthy of National Review. But I begin this hour with Max Boot, who is the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been writing about Egypt. Max, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.

MB: Always a pleasure to be back.

HH: Can you summarize what you think is the situation in Egypt right now, and especially your recommendation on how the United States ought to be acting towards this transitional government?

MB: Well, it’s a very chaotic and fast-moving situation, and therefore hard to summarize. But in essence you had a military coup, and you know, the administration doesn’t want to call it that, but clearly that’s what happened, a military coup that for the moment has some popular support, but also has popular opposition. And it’s taken a turn for the ugly side with soldiers killing more than 50 pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo. And now, they’re trying to create some semblance of a civilian government that will provide some supposedly united or unified leadership that most Egyptians can get behind. But the Muslim Brotherhood is not getting behind it. The al Nour party, the Salafist party, the fundamentalist party, is not getting behind it. So this is, you know, a very dangerous moment where you could see a transition to a more popular and more elected leadership, or you be seeing the start of a civil war. It could go either way. And you know, there are not a lot of good options either way for the United States here, because from our standpoint, clearly we’re happy to get rid of Morsi who was a divisive figure, who was trying to crush the opposition and create a fairly autocratic Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime. But on the other hand, you know, it’s not a good thing to have the military stepping in either, because they’re incompetent, they’re unpopular, and there is the potential for greater conflict that will create more radicalism, and thereby create more dangers for the United States. So you know, there’s not an obvious path through this. But I think in this kind of difficult situation, we need to stick by our principles, and those principles are democracy and representative government. Now we should have been, Obama should have been more critical of Morsi for his violations of those principles, but now, I think he also needs to be vocal in telling the military that they need to stick to the six month timetable they’ve laid out for a transition to elections on a constitution and an elected government. They need to stick to that timetable, or otherwise they’re going to endanger the $1.5 billion dollars a year in funding that we provide to them.

HH: Now Max Boot, you just mentioned the news of the day, which is the Egyptian military-led interim government laid out a six month timetable to return to civilian democracy. They announced as well the appointment of a new temporary prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, who is a technocrat. He’s an economist with ties in the past to Mubarak, of course. But they, nevertheless, he does seem not to be a very political person, and a constitutional rewrite. So the question becomes, in the course of this six month process ahead, ought the aid to continue to flow? Indeed, we had an argument on the program yesterday made by Bret Stephens that the United States ought to flood the country with aid in an attempt to stabilize it economically between now and the establishment of a new popularly-elected government. What do you think?

MB: Well, frankly, I’m torn here, because there are people that I respect, like Bob Kagan and Senator John McCain, Elliott Abrams, who are calling for a cutoff of aid so long as the military in effect remains in power. Others argue, as you heard Bret do just as persuasively that there is more to be gained by maintaining or increasing aid rather than cutting it off. At this point, I’m not comfortable saying that we should cut off aid, because most of our aid is tied to the military abiding by the Camp David Agreement, which we still very much want them to do. And it’s hard to make the case that cutting off aid will make Egypt a better place. In fact, it would probably increase chaos. I mean, I’m not comfortable with the idea of increasing aid, either, because I don’t think there’s a government that’s capable of distributing the aid. There’s not really a competent regime in place right now. So I think a lot of it would simply be wasted. I certainly, you know, I think we should probably maintain the status quo in terms of aid for the time being, but you know, what we really ought to be doing, what nobody’s really talking about, is we need to have a political warfare strategy. We need to have a strategy to aid the more liberal and more democratic forces in Egypt to better organize, and do a better job of countering the organizing of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the kind of thing that we used to do very well in the early days of the Cold War to opposed communist parties all over the world. We don’t do much of it anymore, and we ought to. And in fact, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I just recently put out a memo through the Council on Foreign Relations laying out a strategy for how we can reinvigorate our capacity for waging political warfare. That’s something that we really need to concentrate on right now in Egypt, because there’s a struggle for the future of that country going on, and we know the Brotherhood, we know the Salafists, we know the Qataris and Emiratis and others, they are fully engaged in this struggle. But I suspect we are, by and large, standing on the sidelines. And I don’t think we can afford to do that when so much is at stake.

HH: This afternoon, Max Boot, the official news agency of the Emirates announced that it was providing, that the United Arab Emirates was providing Egypt with a billion dollar grant, and a two billion dollar interest-free loan. And Reuters reported the Saudis are approving a package totaling five billion. One of the crises has been, of course, the soaring cost of fuel in the country. So the neighboring, conservative, stable regimes are doing what they can. Doesn’t that show the United States that the region wants a non-Brotherhood-dominated government?

MB: Well, you know, regimes like the ones in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, of course they want a non-Muslim Brotherhood government. But they also want a non-democratic government. I mean, their preference is for strongmen autocratic types, but that’s not necessarily our preference, because we’ve seen throughout the Muslim world for decades, they’ve been rules by autocrats, and the result of that has been a backlash among their people, which has led to the creation of groups like al Qaeda, which was founded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, along with Osama bin Laden. And Zawahiri, of course, the current leader, is an Egyptian. Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian, the father of modern Islamism. This is really where a lot of the venom and the hatred that drives forward terrorism, this is where it comes from. And so we can’t just afford to follow the advice of the Saudis or Qataris and say oh, hey, we’d like to see the military in power for another 50 years. There has to be a better way here.

HH: Now Max Boot, you just wrote a book not long ago, Invisible Armies, on guerrilla war. Part of that concerned the Algerian-French guerrilla war, and of course, Algeria went through another guerrilla war in the 90s between the regime and the Islamists. If an Egyptian military person puts down that book right now, what do they do to preempt the volcanic explosion of guerrilla warfare in Egypt in this next six months?

MB: Well, they need to address the political side of the equation. I mean, this is one of the key takeaways that I think you take away from a history of guerrilla warfare like Invisible Armies, which is that 80% of the problem is political. It’s not military, it’s not, I mean, the military can go out there and shoot people in the streets, but it’s not going to end the problem unless there’s an acceptable political solution that could win the buy-in of the vast majority of the population. And that’s where the Egyptian military is not very good. Like most militaries, they’re much better at strong arm tactics than they are at winning popular support in drawing in all sides of the political spectrum. But that’s what they need to concentrate on right now. They need to create a regime, however they do it, that has legitimacy. That’s the only way to preempt an insurrection, and it’s the only way to win a civil war, should one break out.

HH: What do you do with a figurehead like Morsi? Not a figurehead, but a symbol of the deposed regime? In successful counterinsurgencies that you covered in Invisible Armies, what do you do with…we can’t support, obviously, injury to him, but what do you do with him?

MB: Well, ideally, they would make him an offer he can’t refuse, a way to get him back into the political process, because if you push him and his followers outside the political process, that’s a very dangerous place. I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood has not resorted to violence so far, but…

HH: Oh, they dispute that, though. They say yesterday, they were shooting at the troops before the massacre occurred. Are you dismissing those accounts?

MB: I mean, I don’t know what happened. I would be skeptical of those accounts. It sounds to me like after-the-fact justifications from the military. But whatever happened, I mean, maybe there’s been some scattered violence, but they have not, you know, gone to an all-out insurgent strategy, as was the case with al Qaeda in Iraq, for example, or what have you. And they have the capabilities to do so, because there’s plenty of arms in the country, a lot of them have flooded in from Libya and elsewhere. And what’s even more important is the Muslim Brotherhood has an organizational structure, which is what you really need to wage guerrilla warfare or terrorism. You need that organizational structure, which they have. So they have the capability to be a very formidable insurgent force, and the military had better realize that. They had better realize that outlawing or sidelining the Muslim Brotherhood is not a serious option. They need to figure out what they can do to coopt Morsi and others, and get them inside the tent.

HH: Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, author most recently of Invisible Armies: An Epic History Of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times To The Modern Era, thank you, Max, for joining us.

End of interview.

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