U.S. ‘Soft Power’ Hits Another Hard Reality in the Middle East

(Reuters) -

On Sunday, June 22, 1941, Winston Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, woke him with the news that Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. In a radio address that same evening, the British prime minister repeated his “consistent” opposition to communism, but said that “all this flashes away … the Russian danger is therefore our danger.” …

Situations change, and men and women in public life are bound to change with them. Few such changes are more wrenching than turning on the dime of principle. Stalinist communism was a system of mass murder: but in the lonely life-and-death struggle for national survival, which Churchill led, it had to be an ally.

The nation now most prone to such diplomatic pirouettes is the United States, still the world’s greatest power. Its strength has ever been defined, in important part, as idealism, “soft” power: belief in pluralism in politics, in free speech and a free press. These institutions are held to be self-evidently good for a society: and the United States, with the European allies, has long preferred and rewarded those states which promise to follow that path.

Nowhere in the globe does idealism face a more testing challenge than in the Middle East — now burying the last hopeful remains of the Arab Spring. This is seen most starkly in Egypt. The overthrow in 2011 of the 30-year autocrat Hosni Mubarak was followed by rule by the army; then by an election which brought a government of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, headed by President Mohamed Morsi; then a popular coup against Morsi’s rackety regime, followed by more army rule — sanctified by the election, in June of this year, of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, formerly the chief of staff. The military, which had governed Egypt through presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak since the Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952 were, after a brief intermission, back. And back tougher.

The field marshal promised democracy, freedom, an independent press and all good things. He appeared competent; he soon gathered praise from economists for measures to improve his country’s economy. But he shows greater competence in shutting down what had become a briefly raucous and creative civil society.

Both before and after his election, al-Sisi’s army and police suppressed demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters with savage force: well over a thousand have been killed, hundreds condemned to death, thousands more imprisoned. Bit by bit, local and foreign NGOs have been closed down or closed themselves. Those who protest these and other measures are arrested under laws that ban unauthorized demonstrations, or anti-terrorist legislation. …

The news media … had cascaded off in a variety of sparkling directions: no longer. …  Late last month, top editors and [media] presenters gathered to declare that they were with the military — and promised to confront “the hostile culture toward the national project and the foundations of the Egyptian state.” Bassem Youssef, the surgeon who became a … satire star with a … talk show poking — quite hard — at the Brotherhood government and at the military, gave up in June, saying, “The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program.”

It’s clear enough that al-Sisi’s regime is the harshest since that of Nasser in the 1950s and 60s. But where the latter sought to remold society to bring socialism to Egypt and unity to the Arab world — both failures — the former has another reason for imposing order. Egypt is in the grip of a sustained violent onslaught by Islamic militants, organized by those who see the overthrow of the Brotherhood government as an abomination. The militants wish to go much further than the fumbling Morsi-led administration, to impose an Islamist tyranny on the country.

Earlier this week, the group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (‘Supporters of Jerusalem’) formally affiliated itself with the larger Islamic State, which has now moved into the spot of terrorist challenge number one. Islamic State’s stores of looted weaponry and control of some oil wells in Iraq gives it a heft that other groups need to take on an army, like that of Egypt. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has already killed hundreds of army and police, and range from Sinai in the east to the deserts in the west — and may soon threaten Cairo with bombs and attacks. The stage is set for a long struggle

And a bloody one, in which democratic freedoms and civic rights will suffer more. Egypt, with other Arab states … [has] coalesced to oppose the Islamist terrorist groups, headed by Hamas in Gaza and now metastasizing into new networks of threat. In doing so, they have softened their enmity to the “natural” bogey state, Israel. Egypt, which has a longtime accord with the Jewish state, now views Hamas with the same hatred as Israel does.

And thus it is that the United States must again set aside its ideals in favor of realpolitik. President Barack Obama met al-Sisi in New York, when the Egyptian leader attended the United Nations. He raised the issue of the Al Jazeera journalists, but that was against the backdrop of increased military aid to Egypt and clear signs of closer cooperation on issues such as the fight against Islamic State.

The anti-militant Arab coalition may or may not hold. If it does, it shows a welcome assumption of responsibility for the peace of the region, and resistance to the extreme Islamist version of fascism, from its strongest powers. It may, in its course, bring a rapprochement with Israel closer.

It’s a great prize. It’s just that it means putting the issues of democratic rule, civil society and freedom of speech and the press, in the box marked — “See you later, Arab Spring!” The best to be hoped is that it’s not “Goodbye!”