It’s the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly this week in New York. A number of world leaders will address representatives of the globe’s population – including the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It seems only yesterday that Sisi deposed and detained a democratically elected president from office, Mohammad Mursi, following widespread protests. The international community has moved on a great deal since its initial reaction to that suspension of a democratic experiment – but not without a great amount of risk. The momentum is clear – the strategic direction is not.
While the popularity of the current political dispensation is difficult to ascertain precisely, there are no illusions in the international community about the popular backing of the Egyptian authorities domestically; though back in the summer of 2013, that might have been in doubt. The impetus of the international reaction to Egypt has been rather consistent – if Cairo can handle Egypt, then the international community will deal with whomsoever is running the show, and able to run the show, in Cairo. He can be an Islamist, he can be a military leader who deposed an Islamist, he can be an autocrat in power for thirty years – he’s just got to handle it.
This is unlikely to be the last time Sisi addresses the United Nations with little in the way of substantial criticism about his policies from the international community.H.A. Hellyer
It is an easy momentum to get behind and follow – because the alternatives are far more difficult to envisage as easier. If Egypt was an island in a region where everything was going swimmingly, with no real challenges of any sort, the international community would have little in the way of an imperative to engage with Egypt in a different fashion. One could argue for a more stout commitment that recognized the de facto political reality on the ground in Cairo while still engaging on a series of engagements to inspire Egypt to be more robust when it comes to fundamental rights and encourage reforms. But it would be an argument – because, alas, the international community does not have a good track record in pushing much in that way. It may try to seize opportunities when they present themselves. But there are few examples that come to mind where any real representation of the international community has resulted in widespread reforms in a country, without a massive effort from within that country first. That isn’t the case at the moment in Egypt.
Tough nut to crack
That’s the scenario if Egypt were an island of ricketiness, in a sea of stability and prosperity. Of course, that's not the case at all. Egypt does not get remotely a clean bill of health – not when it comes to economic indicators, political wellbeing, or sturdiness in terms of protection of fundamental rights. But even for those capitals that care about such things (and there aren’t that many), Egypt may look like something akin to a slowly unfolding cataclysm, but it appears surrounded by a plethora of catastrophes. Iraq, Syria, Libya, ISIS, refugees, Yemen – all of these appear far more contemporaneous and imminent. The fact is, they look that way because they are that way. Taking on the tough nut to crack that is Egypt is something no-one really wants to do – it’s dubious anyone would at the best of times, but surely not at a time like this.
So, when the Egyptian presidency provides the impetus for good news, there are, as might be expected, many who then clamor to laud such moves. Indeed, it was good news to know that Sisi pardoned a hundred detainees on the eve of Eid al-Adha last week – because it is so rare to hear of such imprisonments coming to an end ahead of the expected time.
Looking for good news
But that's a dangerous distraction – one that fits into our usual approach internationally on Egypt. We look for that good news, because it is so rare that we see it. And the existence of such news then allows us the opportunity to imagine things are moving generally in the right direction – so, we do not really need to worry as much about the overall trajectory of Egypt after all, and we can focus on other things instead. We would anyway – but this makes it easier on us.
It’s a treacherous and hazardous position to take. Arbitrary pardons are not the way to fix Egypt’s justice system – wholescale reform of Egypt’s justice system is the way to fix Egypt’s justice system. There are no short cuts in that regard – and there is precious little evidence to suggest that Cairo is interested in that regard. The country’s political elites and state structures are emphatically involved in what they see as a ‘war on terror’ – and that overrides other concerns, if they even have them, tremendously.
The choice of the international community in 2015 is much the same as it was in 2013. When Sisi addresses the world from the United Nations’ podium this week, he does so as the president of a country in which he has staying power and a good deal of popular support. But he also does so as a president that presides over a system that remains in dire need of reform on multiple levels, not least in terms of establishing genuine and real methods of accountability for many abuses and excesses.
In 2013, I argued that regardless of the popularity of the military takeover, that did not absolve Cairo in terms of ensuring fundamental rights for all, including opponents of the government, regardless of political hue, including Islamists. Political realities in terms of support and durability may be uncomfortable, but that discomfort should never be used as an excuse to hold powers to account. That is even more imperative when such powers engage in potentially counter-productive strategies, as many security analysts suggest Cairo is currently engaging in when it comes to its counter-terrorism policies.
This is unlikely to be the last time Sisi addresses the United Nations with little in the way of substantial criticism about his policies from the international community. Egypt certainly requires extensive reforms in order for it to respond to its present challenges, let alone those that are on the way with such a young population – but it seems Cairo will have to learn that on its own. It is uninterested in learning otherwise from even the most well meaning friends from abroad. And it’s not really clear there are enough outside of Egypt who are so committed to otherwise, anyway. In years to come, there will probably be quite a few who will regret that, inside and outside of the country - but denial is not just a river in Egypt, after all.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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