Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Smart Power and Soft War: Egypt Versus Syria and Qatar in Gaza

I have written of the great change in American approaches to the management of the its role in the world on the ascendancy of the administration of President Obama. I have suggested how the many aspects of liberal internationalism touched on in that speech suggest great possibilities for advancing an American agenda. Larry Catá Backer, Democracy Part XIV: “For Now We See Through A Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face”; On President Obama's Inauguration Speech, Law at the End of the Day, January 21, 2009. I have also suggested the power of the global community trope that appears to be a signature of political line of the new administration. That idea is grounded in the sense that the values of the United States are the most legitimate because the United States can serve as a proxy for the global community because is the only nation that incorporates within it representatives of virtually the entire global community. As such, American values can serve as proxies for legitimate global values.

This is a powerful mechanics of soft engagement, where the object is the control of the principles on the basis of which politics and economics are ordered within the global community. It seeks control of the language of power and the framework within it is deployed. The stakes are high, and the Americans are not the only powerful player seeking to use one or another version of this approach in the global battle for influence and the protection of communal interests. Larry Catá Backer, Global Economic Collapse and the Search for Sources of Values in Economic Theory: The Role of Religion, a Catholic Perspective, Law at the End of the Day, January 7, 2009. That notion of legitimate representativeness is then to be advanced, not by bullying, but by what the oncoming Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton calls, smart power—the deployment of social, cultural, and economic tools among networks of shifting alliances for the purpose of containing enemies and creating a basis for the naturalization of American (global) vales as the standard for world conduct. Larry Catá Backer, Embracing Networked Managerialism in the Service of a Global (American) Power, Law at the End of the Day, January 26, 2009. It was thus was a great deal of interest that I considered the way in which Egypt has become a devotee of the use of smart power for the preservation of its own regional interests and the preservation of its government. The focus of that consideration is the recent role of Egypt in the recent violence between Israel and the government of Hamas in the Gaza.

Gaza presents not just one but several wars, only one of which has been privileged within the spheres of reality created through media reportage. While the West and much of the rest of the world has been fixated on the by now mandatory recitation of the traditional morality play narrative of the principal conflict, in which Israel plays the villain and the Palestinians play the victims with weapons and a propensity to violence, another war is being waged. Egypt is at war with the Palestinians. Better put, Egypt is at war with the democratically elected government of Hamas in Gaza. The reasons are simple enough. Egypt has a strong stake in the other government of the nascent Palestinian state (Fatah). Hamas has constituted itself a government dedicated to the use of hard military power to achieve its internal objectives (the constitution of an Islamic state) and external objectives (the use of the tactics of irregular war, including the deliberate primary targeting of civilian populations within the State of Israel, for the purpose of destroying that entity and forcibly displacing its people). Hamas has strong links to Islamist elements within Egypt, the goals of which are not dissimilar to those of Hamas but whose objectives include the forcible replacement of the current Egyptian government. Hamas is the proxy military of the Syrian and Iranian states, through which both states project power within the Middle East—increasing their influence in the region on the basis of body counts harvested in the battlefields of Israel and Palestine. Egypt supports the other Palestinian government and has relations with the other principal direct combatant—Israel—from and through which it has also increased its own influence not only within the Middle East but within the European Union and the United States. It is, after all, vital to Egyptian interests to continue to serve as the great host of global meetings about the crisis. Hosting the Israelis and then Palestinians, the various combinations of Muslim majority states, the Quartet and others, enhances Egypt and shores up its state apparatus.

All of this is well known in the region, but hardly worth considering. It is the baseline from out of which media combat is engaged. The reason, of course, is that reality tends to be the first victim of regional conflicts. Soft power targets the control of media and the privileging of certain approaches to understanding events that favor one or another party in a conflict through the production of seemingly neutral reporting the objective of which is to manipulate values in the service of a particular pre judgment. Thus, while Egypt and Syria wage a war using surrogates in Gaza, the wider conflict is ignored and the identity and purposes of the real players is lost.

Interestingly, it is to an Egyptian paper that some credit must be given for a clearer vision of the way in which the Egyptian soft war against it regional rivals. See Dina Ezzat, Same Tactics Apply: Egypt is not Ready to Shift its Policies With Regard to the Palestinian Israeli File, Al-Ahram (22-28 January 2009). The article starts with the usual—the grand goals for the region—a truce, reconstruction of Gaza (in preparation for the next round of violence perhaps), and reconciliation of the Palestinian factions for the purpose of reaching some sort of an accord with Israel. But more interesting still is the admission that Egypt, like the United States, the Saudis, the Europeans and all of the rest, despite the sanctimonious repetition of each of these players to the contrary, has a particular interest in the contest.

In pursuing these objectives, Egyptian officials argue, Egypt will "take note" of the growing sensitivity that Hamas has towards Cairo in view of what the resistance movement claims to be a clear Egyptian bias against it -- "not just in favour of Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas", as one Hamas source said, "but even in favour of the enemy".

Obviously, Egyptian officials deny such bias outright. However, they add that Cairo is willing to "accommodate to a certain extent" Hamas's concerns while refraining from invitations to prove its "unbiased stance". In short, Hamas might encounter more in the way of Egyptian "understanding".
Id. While Egypt is willing to concede certain small points to Hamas, there are others with respect to which its interests and those of Israel converge to some extent. “There are, however, areas where Hamas envoys might confront Egyptian reticence. An obvious issue on which Egypt is willing to offer no compromise is its condition to operate its side of the Rafah crossing only in the presence of representatives of the PA along with a third party (possibly observers from the European Union, Turkey, or other countries) on the Palestinian side.” Id. In the absence of agreement, Egypt is perfectly content to continue to aid in the choking of Gaza—especially since Israel will receive virtually all of the blame by a media apparatus blinkered to its own agenda in the great battles between combatants in this part of the world.

According to this diplomat, General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, who is administering Egyptian management of the Palestinian-Israeli file, and who is personally set to attend the separate talks that Egypt is planning to host, has made it crystal clear to Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, that short of this condition being fulfilled Egypt will not allow the crossing to be regularly open. "If no agreement is reached, we will continue to do what we have been doing since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007: operate the crossing for clear humanitarian purposes only, and that is it," the diplomat said.
Id. The base reason is simple—Egypt, like every other Muslim power in the area, does not want to “get stuck” with the Palestinians—better, it seems under Israeli than Muslim control. “‘Egypt is not making any compromises there. None whatsoever. We are not going to get stuck with Gaza. We defied that during the aggression and we will continue to defy it after the aggression. This is a red line,’ commented an Egyptian diplomat on condition of anonymity.’” Id. Now this is smart power!

And, indeed, the Egyptians have to have a care about the war, since it can easily become hot on its side of the border. The insistence on respect for hyper-sovereignty provides a litmus test of sort for internal political battles. The key is the tunnels built by Hamas (as well as ordinary smugglers) between Egypt and Gaza. Egypt might be indifferent to the tunnels but for its utility to the Muslim Brotherhood as a means of escape from Egyptian authorities, as a corridor to training camps, and storage facilities within Gaza. For that reason alone the tunnels are a danger to Egypt. As long as the Israelis served Egypt by destroying them—and also took the brunt of media condemnation for its peripheral effects on “humanitarian” aid--increasingly a code for matters others than the basic necessities in a combat zone among the friends of Hamas (and brilliantly presented by the global press as its own idea of neutral reporting)—all was well enough. The difficulty comes when Egypt is left to do its own dirty work. The solution lies in sovereignty.
The maximum that Israel will get from Egypt on this issue, according to Egyptian officials, is extensive cooperation with "technical teams" that the US and some other European states are offering to send to detect the location of suspected tunnels. Egypt, officials add, would insist that only its authorities would decide how to close such tunnels if the job was to be done from the Egyptian side. "We cannot accept anything that would constitute a direct violation of our sovereignty on our territories. This is a very serious issue for us, and it's a very sensitive matter for the public," the same diplomat stressed.
Id. Now the Israelis, Germans and Americans will be tainted in the world press, and in the service of Egyptian interests in the stability of its current regime. Patsy power is the old fashioned term. And effective, as well.

But that leaves the intra-Muslim battle over Hamas, a battle in which Egypt cannot rely on the cover of the Israelis. That battle pits Egypt, for the moment, against Qatar and Syria. Egypt, it appears, will not permit any but an official role for Hamas, and that only as a concession to get movement on efforts to legitimate the de-facto arrangements between Israel and the dar al Islam.
Egyptian officials say that the prospect of Hamas leaders sitting in a conference hall alongside Abbas -- as Qatar had planned during the Doha summit that it hosted for Arab states last Friday, and that Egypt refused to attend -- is simply "out of the question". "Hamas leaders could be received in Cairo as they have been, but we are not letting them attend any Arab League meetings or consultative summits. This area remains strictly reserved for the legitimate Palestinian Authority. This is not just our position, but also that of the secretariat of the Arab League," the diplomat argued.
Id. It seems that Egypt’s interests within the political battlefield that is the Arab League is tied, to some extent, to the fate of Hamas. “Egypt seems set to cooperate with Saudi Arabia on promoting Palestinian reconciliation. However, it is still not willing to work with either Syria or Qatar, Hamas's direct and indirect allies, on this front. "If the Saudis want to do it they can, but we are not," commented one official who asked for his name to be withheld.” Id.

That battlefield has not been confined to the diplomatic front. It seems that now masters of the use of the media as the great field of combat for Arab and global opinion (and thus as a means of pressure through the representative or ruling state apparatus). And in this battle, Egypt names names. And one name in particular is prominently suggested as a great political player through its use of media power in the service of one of the parties about which it purports to report: al-Jezeera, and incidentally Al-Ahram’s media rival. The irony, of course, is that Al-Jazeera publishes from the relative safety of the West. “Aljazeera Publishing is an independent media organisation established in 1992 in London.” Aljazeera.com, About Us.

The stakes are high: “For Egypt, this position is not just a reaction to what Cairo qualifies as "an aggressive war that Syria and Qatar led against Egypt through the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera" during the war on Gaza. It is rather more strategic: "Syria and Qatar are working in tandem with the Iranian regional scheme that aims to fortify the Islamic political movement, and for Egypt this is simply a red line," the official said.” Dina Ezzat, supra.

Thus, the December Gaza conflict provides a window on the use of smart power in the context of a hot conflict. It reminds us that the simpleminded analysis of the press is at times no more than the bullets of an important front in the battle and that the combatants are rarely merely those on whom the press lavishes attention. The war being fought around and through the hot contest in Gaza suggests the framework within which smart policy and soft power will operate. Both the United States and Israel might do well to learn from Egypt in the appropriate manner of deploying power smartly in a world in which military victory does not appear to follow the arrangements of power relationships.

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