The other day Brian Jenkins, who has been studying terror at Rand since I was in high school, tweeted:
That link is to an AP story that leads
addressing tens of thousands of mostly Islamist supporters, Egypt’s president-elect Mohammed Morsi has vowed to free the blind sheik jailed in the U.S. for a plot to blow up New York City landmarks.
Even if we account for Twitter’s character limit Jenkins’ assessment misses the mark because it assumes (1) there is a single entity with which the US will conduct counter-terror cooperation, and (2) that Morsi’s promise will be strongly and positively linked to Egypt’s future interactions with the US wrt to counter-terror. The first assumption is patently false, and the second is a forecast about which we are wildly uncertain.
As Jenkins is aware, the Egyptian state is (1) highly fractured and (2) institutionally fluid. The extent to which SCAF (the military junta) will cede power is highly uncertain (and I, for one, am dubious that it will cede much), and it is further unclear to which the judiciary is an independent actor (Tamir Moustafa documents that Egypt’s judiciary is widely viewed as one of the more independent among dictatorships). Suffice it to say that forecasts about Egyptian policy are fabulously uncertain. The one policy domain, however, in which I would put the smallest uncertainty is security. And I am not just going “realist” here. Until evidence surfaces to the contrary my money is on SCAF maintaining for a long time control over security affairs. Counter-terror falls within that domain. US financial support hinges, in part, upon cooperation with the US, and SCAF is not ready to abandon that support.
So what to make of Mr. Morsi? Here is a guy who is trying to create institutional power in the face of two powerful institutions: SCAF and the Egyptian courts. Morsi presently has none. What he does have is support among a non-tirvial portion of the population. However, Morsi is a politician who recognizes that his support is made up of a coalition, not a monolith. And I see his promise to release the Sheikh as a page straight out of one of America’s most deft recent politicians, Ronald Reagan. Michael Deaver, a Regan advisor, helped the President make largely empty, but powerfully symbolic, gestures toward the religious right, who were an important portion of Reagan’s coaliton. My take on Morsi’s promise is that it was a deft move by a politician who is trying to accomplish a remarkable balancing act on a high wire: placating the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) while negotiating from a position of weakness with SCAF, the courts, and the Egyptian public who did not support him, but wish to see a transition to democratic rule. Whether he follows through on that promise he is able to put off til another day. By accepting the post just days after the Courts abolished the legislature and SCAF usurped power, Morsi has already exposed himself to charges from within MB to being a SCAF toadie. Further, he knows he will have to continue to accept US foreign aid. As such, Morsi must give something to those who will otherwise accuse him of kowtowing to the SCAF and the US. The promise to free the Sheikh may prove to be an astute move that buys him space, just as Regan continually bought it with his symbolic gestures to the religious right.
Mr Jenkins is quite familiar with the extensive history of MB persecution by the Egyptian military, and rest assured Mr. Morsi weighs that past in his decision making: succeed or go to prison (or worse) is a very plausible choice set for Mr. Morsi. Yet, Mr. Jenkins ignores the fact that Morsi faces an incredibly challenging , and in doing so, Jenkins contributes to producing the outcome he warns us about.