The Middle East Channel

Egypt's cobra and mongoose

The deadly struggle for power between Egypt's rulers and Muslim Brothers dates back to the rule of King Faruq, with each episode following virtually the identical script. Each time, for a brief period ruler and Brothers "cohabitate," but the marriage of convenience soon breaks down amidst mutual recrimination. The ruler, recently arrived on the monarchial or presidential throne, reaches out to the Brothers to benefit from or at least neutralize the political support they command. For their part the Brothers seek purchase within the state to ward off threats, obtain resources, and gain footholds from which they may commence their final ascent to power. But this cooperation will not last, to judge by history -- a history well known to all players in today's unfolding story.

In the case of King Faruq, the Brothers overreached with a campaign of assassination, which provoked a counter-campaign that included the killing of the movement's founder-leader Hassan al-Banna, and a general crackdown on the movement. In the case of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the new regime went so far as to provide the Brothers a cabinet seat before using an alleged assassination attempt on Nasser almost two years on to launch the campaign of terror against them that lasted virtually until the end of his life. For his part, Anwar Sadat reached out to the Brothers to fill the political vacuum resulting from his purge of leftist Nasserists only months after becoming president. For several years they enjoyed his patronage and protection, before falling victim to his fear and megalomania.

Hosni Mubarak followed a similar script when he replaced the assassinated Sadat, re-opening political space for the Brothers in the first years of his long rule, before settling on a formula in the 1990s that sharply constrained but did not eliminate their political presence. For years, Mubarak tolerated, and indeed benefited from, this limited presence. But like his predecessors, Mubarak ultimately tightened the screws on the Brotherhood further, seeking vainly in the final years of his presidency to destroy their economic and political base through an escalated campaign of arrests and repression.

The history of relations between modern Egyptian rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood has played out again and again in the same manner of the epic clash between the mongoose and cobra, with the former always winning. Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and his fellow generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are of course well aware of this history. Their behavior suggests that they too want to benefit from the Brotherhood's political support during a transitional period. But almost as farce, history seems destined to repeat itself. The rivalry inherent in the relationship renders political cohabitation difficult to the point of being impossible, so the military mongoose can be expected to strike at the Brotherhood cobra yet again. But this time the outcome may be quite different.

The comparative evidence of relations in other authoritarian regimes between a ruling military and religiously based opposition parties is not as one-sided as the mongoose-cobra analogy implies. While General Franco and his military came to dominate all of Spain, including the Catholic church and its right wing political arm, Opus Dei, fascism elsewhere in Europe, including in Germany and Italy, saw the party, at least partially supported by the church, ascendant over the military. In Latin America the military generally had the upper hand until democratic transitions subordinated it to institutional control. In Iran, however, the mullahs appear still to have the upper hand against both the regular military and the Revolutionary Guard Corps they created as a counterbalance to it. These battles do not inevitably result in the army subordinating the party.

Nor do the specifics of the current SCAF-Brotherhood political cohabitation suggest that history will necessarily repeat itself. The SCAF is playing a clumsy political game that may backfire. As a scheduled transition to civilian rule looms, the military is busily trying to draw redlines behind which its interests will remain inviolable. But that effort has undermined its political support and brought into question the very exercise. Over the long haul the military will be hard pressed to defend the lines it has drawn in the face of a contentious political arena and energized the Egyptian public. Demands will intensify for scrutiny of its budget, its internal management, and for it to at least share responsibility for making national security policies.

One possibility is that a cabal of officers, perhaps of a pan-Arabist neo-Nasserist persuasion, could decide that the SCAF, the Brothers, the "revolutionaries," and indeed everyone else had made such a political mess of things since February 11, 2011, that they needed to intervene to save the nation. But in today's Egypt, they would be hard put to assert themselves over the newly empowered Brothers and fellow traveling Islamists. In none of the historic episodes did the Brothers seek to mobilize their supporters in the street against the state. But this time, after the events of the last year, no one could be guaranteed of such reticence now that they have finally arrived almost at the seat of power.

The underlying political economy of the military-Brotherhood cohabitation similarly seems to favor the latter. The current division of the political system gives the military and Brothers control over the "hard" and "soft" states, respectively. The former now encompasses all of the armed forces, including the security and intelligence services as well as the police, plus provincial governorships and heads of provincial, district, and local executive councils. The potentially threatening position of chair of the parliamentary national security and defense committee was awarded by the Brothers to a former general, signaling their acquiescence to the military in this potentially key domain. The "hard" cabinet portfolios of defense, military production, interior, foreign policy, finance, and international cooperation are presently all in the hands of SCAF loyalists, where they are likely to remain in the first independent government to be formed later this year. On paper the military looks to be in an unassailable position.

But the Brotherhood's hold on the soft state and its political influence more broadly is far from trivial. The parliament which it dominates will have greater power than at any time since the first following nominal independence in 1923. While the Brotherhood is unlikely to institutionalize that power in an elected body which it cannot be certain to control in the future, its leaders will be able to threaten to deploy parliament's latent powers to enhance their leverage. Assuming that they perform as well in local government elections as they have in parliamentary ones, the same will hold true in the governorates, districts, and municipalities. Councils at these levels will be able to contest for power with their executive branch equivalents. The Brothers' domination of professional syndicates and strong influence within the judiciary, as evidenced by their present role in the Judge's Club and Supreme Council of the Judiciary, provide additional bases upon which they can build political power. While the constitution is yet to be written, it is widely assumed that it will establish a system in which considerable executive power is transferred to the legislative branch. The betting now is that the president will be a compromise candidate between the SCAF and the Brotherhood, thereby ensuring that this key figure cannot be a complete tool of either.

The Brothers are likely to attempt to begin to move against the armed forces simultaneously from the bottom and the top. The police on the beat, already deeply unpopular and demoralized, are going to find it very hard to push back against the Brothers, who have real power on the streets. Many police are likely to begin to find common cause with them. The same will be true, although in lesser degree, of military and security service conscripts, especially in the Central Security Force of the Ministry of Interior. From the top down the Brothers undoubtedly already have supporters within the various corps of officers, which they will seek to bolster. The potential for a bandwagon effect is certainly there, as careerists in the armed forces and those just serving their terms of conscription perceive that it is better for them to get with the coming strength rather than to be swept away in the ebb tide associated with the ousted regime and its officer legacy. So while the Brothers only dominate the soft state at present, it already provides a weighty counterbalance to the hard state, the control of which by the military will be challenged in the coming years.

The economic system is similarly, although not yet as sharply divided into hard and soft components, but likely soon to be more so. The military economy includes consumer goods and services, but its principal concentration is in heavier industry. That tendency will probably be reinforced as the generals lay claim to assets seized from Gamal Mubarak's cronies, most notably those in iron and steel and other areas of energy intensive production. The Brothers' economic activities, such as those run by Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al Shater or businessman Safwan Sabit, are almost entirely in consumer goods and services, including retail shops, restaurants, food processing, household furniture, and the like. They also have interests in formal and informal financial institutions.

As is the case with regard to politics, while at first glance controlling the hard economy seems to be an advantage for the military, over the longer haul controlling its soft components may give the Brothers the upper hand. Given the size and rate of growth of the population, consumer demand is bound to expand, thereby advantaging providers of consumer goods and services. And as important as economic advantage will be the direct contact between Brotherhood controlled companies and the public and the possibilities that provides for general reputational enhancement, resource accumulation, and recruitment. In addition, the Brotherhood will move to expand its existing social safety net and will draw upon state resources to do so, lest the appeal of the Salafis among the poor, as demonstrated in the parliamentary elections, become a serious political threat. This too will serve to reinforce its political standing and extend its reach.

Another economic consideration is the Brothers' ability to tap resources from the Gulf. While the Mubarak regime was kept on drip feed from Gulf sources and the SCAF has yet to obtain really major contributions from those sources, the Brothers' prospects are considerably brighter. Various of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have already demonstrated an interest in investing in the Brotherhood's political futures and as they brighten, more investors are likely to follow, whether through direct subventions, investments in businesses, or public assistance to the state. Finally, the expansion of the Islamic economy, as suggested already by the promised floating of a $2 billion sukuk (Islamic bond) issue, not only will provide another bridge to the Gulf, it will bolster the standing of the Brothers as competent and moral economic managers and as gatekeepers and stimulators of this flow of funds. By comparison, the military's hold over capital intensive factories producing military and intermediate goods will provide them few directly political advantages, either at home or in the region.

The comparative advantage of the Brotherhood over the military has already been displayed in the area of foreign policy. In a move of near desperation as it saw its support ebbing away, the SCAF launched an attack on the United States, using the issue of U.S. funding to Egyptian NGOs to do so. This not only bit the hand that feeds the military, it stimulated anti-Americanism and anti-westernism more generally, a tendency that is a threat to the military's interest and a boon to the Brothers'. Now that this whole subject has been opened, it can be manipulated almost at will by those who will benefit from chauvinism, which over the longer haul will assuredly be the Brothers, not the military.

The present cohabitation of the military and the Brotherhood, based as it is on the transient supremacy of the former, is therefore inherently unstable. A preemptive strike by the generals, or even by a colonel, as was done in the past, would be unlikely to succeed this time around. And failing such a strike, time is on the side of the Brothers. This time, they will be the victorious mongoose and the military the defeated cobra. Egypt is thus at a historic turning point as profound as when the republican era replaced the colonial one. Will they try to directly control the cobra they have defeated, or will they seek instead to subject that military to institutional control within an at least quasi-democratic polity? In other words, will they opt for an Iranian style system of control of the armed forces, thereby converting them into a base for their own power, or will they chose instead to depoliticize the military, thus making democracy possible?  Here, finally, neither history, nor the mongoose metaphor, offers us lessons.

Robert Springborg is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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The Middle East Channel

The precarious balance of women's rights in Israel

Earlier this month, the Israeli government's ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill to try and uphold prison sentences for solicitors of prostitution. The bill, which also grants an educational program for first time-offenders, was initiated already half a decade ago by the left-wing Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On. When Meretz's political fortunes diminished in 2009 elections and Gal-on lost her sit, Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz took upon herself to promote it. Gal-On -- now an MK again -- said in an interview that it took years of huge efforts by her and the other supporters of the bill, mainly NGOs and academia, "including arranging conferences and presenting experts' advocacy" to change perceptions among decision makers and opinion leaders. The bill still needs to gain the Knesset's vote, but should it be approved, it will be a tremendous addition to progressive trends in Israel and to the standing of women in Israeli society.

Yet this law is ultimately only one component of the status quo in Israeli society today concerning the status of women. On the other side of this equation is the news that broke several weeks ago about Natan Eshel, chief of staff to the Israeli Prime Minister, who had allegedly stalked a female employee and was reported to the state's Attorney General by three top officials at the Prime Minister's office. The fact that the three decided to report on this is clearly a result of a growing awareness in Israel of gender-based exploitation in work place, including in the highest ranks of the political arena. On the other hand, albeit the investigation on the case -- led by the Civil Service commission -- the response from Netanyahu was mild, if not somewhat indifferent: At first his office even referred to the case as "gossip". Eshel ultimately resigned his post and admitted wrongdoing after more details continued to break in the news and pressure by the Civil Service commission, but not after any direct initiative from Netanyahu, Eshel's former boss and a close friend of his, who even went on to seriously question the relevant whistleblowers for keeping him out of the loop when going directly to the Attorney General.

No less disturbing were some notable public reactions to the sexual harassment charges, suggesting that in order to withhold powerful men from developing "temptation" towards female subordinates, the women in such cases are the ones that should be expelled -- preferably quietly -- from office, thus removed (or practically segregated) out of the potential assaulter's sight; convenient for everyone involved but for the victim.

Together, the above news items have again thrown into the spotlight the fluctuations and paradoxes at the heart of Israeli society today concerning the status of women. That state of affairs continues to be underpinned by a stark contradiction between a growing phenomenon of gender segregation in the Israeli public sphere and some groundbreaking achievements that Israel has had in empowering women.

On the former account, recent developments have been great cause for worry. Various public transportation routes continue to be dogged by demeaning demands for women to sit at the rear of buses -- regardless of a Supreme Court ruling forbidding enforcement of such demands. There have been further cases in which religious, Jewish Israeli male soldiers boycotted army events that included female singers; others refused to serve under female instructors.

Elsewhere, advertisers, especially in Jerusalem, often avoid using images of women in ads and on billboards. This visualizing trend of women-exclusion goes far beyond commercial advertising: in January of this year, a pamphlet by a religious-Zionist education center blurred the face of terror victim Ruth Fogel in an ad commemorating Fogel, her husband, and the couple's three young children, all viciously murdered last year at the settlement of Itamar. Only after a harsh media response did the center apologize for the ill treatment.

A new report published in late December by the Israeli Religious Action Center showed a 66 percent increase in 2011 in reported cases of women's segregation in the public sphere including in conferences, funerals, and even at a ballot box. And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially denounces gender-based segregation, his track record has been lacking even before the Eshel case. In September he did nothing to prevent the banning of award-winning women from appearing on stage alongside their male peers to receive their prizes in an official Ministry of Health ceremony -- a department over which Mr. Netanyahu formally presides.

Similarly, in November, President Shimon Peres told students at a Jerusalem Ultra-Orthodox college that in order to enable the sector's integration in the Israeli workforce, employers should "respect the required unique employment terms, primarily separation between men and women and bestowing prayer times."

At the same time, however, some profoundly accomplished gender equality legislation is starting to bear fruit within the very same public sphere.

Take the Israeli law against sexual harassment, enacted in 1998. Its initiator, lawyer and academic Dr. Orit Kamir, described this law as one "that prohibits sexual harassment as a discriminatory practice, a restriction of liberty, an offense to human dignity, a violation of every person's right to elementary respect, and an infringement of the right to privacy". Over a month ago, a man who referred to a female soldier as "prostitute" when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem was charged -- based on this law -- with sexual harassment.

The law also determines sexual harassment to be a criminal, rather than merely a civil, offense. The significance of this uniquely Israeli feature was exemplified in the case of former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who started his seven-year term in prison in December 2011, after being convicted a year earlier of rape, sexual harassment, committing an indecent act while using force, and obstruction of justice.

Dr. Anat Scolnicov, an expert on human rights law from Cambridge University explained in an interview that at the beginning of the investigation -- opened after Mr. Katsav complained of a blackmail attempt against him -- the only evidence the police had of criminal conduct by the then President was a testimony of sexual harassment. Had Israeli law considered sexual harassment to be merely a civil wrong, says Dr. Scolnicov, the police would have had no legal grounds to continue the investigation. Thus, the full extent of the former president's crimes would have probably never been revealed.

Tensions between progressive and reactionary dynamics are of course not new to Israeli society: Dichotomies have accompanied Zionism from its very inception, and the issue of women's rights has been no exception. The right of women to vote in the Zionist congress -- the elected pre-state assembly --was introduced in 1899, preceding female emancipation in the U.S. by more than two decades. Yet, women's voting in the local Zionist assembly founded in Palestine four years later, in 1903, was banned due to a fierce objection by Orthodox Jews.

Obstacles for gender equality never remained exclusively religion-based. The early Zionist pioneers championed a socialist, equalitarian agenda, but relegated women to domestic roles. Even in the early kibbutzim women were limited to cooking and cleaning while men were allocated agricultural and manufacturing jobs -- tasks which were highly regarded for their acclaimed contribution to the Zionist goal.

More than a century later however, on Israel's 63rd year as a declared democratic state, one can only wonder how is it possible that the reactionary trends still seem so prevalent and even intensified. To a large degree, the ongoing anti-women dynamics -- in spite of the aforementioned successes for some women's rights consolidation and success -- can be explained by the demographic growth of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, by the radicalization of the religious-Zionist sector and its settlement-based leadership, and by flaws in Israel's parliamentary system which give disproportionate political power to relatively small parliamentary factions, resulting in an increased might of religious parties. The recent radicalization may also be intransigents' response to various women-led progressive initiatives aimed at boosting women's public and religious roles.

The strong militaristic tendency in Israel has also not proved conducive for creating an environment supportive of feminism. Although women are theoretically bound to military service, the army's contribution to gender equality in Israel is negligible, if not negative. Serving in the IDF fails to promote women's social mobility; whereas for men it is an excellent vehicle to reach positions of power, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly military background among many of Israel's top male political, administrative, and business figures. Moreover, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed recently that the IDF effectively buried the implementation of a military committee's report -- submitted four years ago -- that called for gender equality in the army.

Finally, it can be assumed that a society that has been maintaining an oppressive regime over another population for 45 years would be also inclined to tolerate repressive measures upon its own citizens.

These negative trends, however, which have undermined Israel's democracy for years have often been held in check, however tenuously, by an array of democratic institutions and the earnest efforts of a dedicated NGO and civil society community. To overcome the progressive dynamics at work and enable even more excessive outbursts of reactionary setbacks, a substantial tiebreaker is therefore needed to swing the pendulum in the negative direction.

Unfortunately, that component has already been supplied by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, which in the past couple of years has initiated a body of legislation which targets the core tools to maintain democracy. These laws have aimed to weaken the Supreme Court, limit freedom of speech and freedom of association, marginalize -- if not paralyze -- civil society, and assert ethnic and religious preferences over civil equality.

Katsav's conviction, for instance, which came after many twists and turns and a not insignificant amount of legal efforts, would have nevertheless been impossible without a free and vocal press, vibrant civil society organizations who did not let the case drop from the public discourse, and of course an independent judicial system: In other words, precisely the totality of elements which are under such a great risk due to the current direction of Israel's political system.

There is a direct and firm link between male chauvinism and nationalistic chauvinism. Both seek to attain a division in society based a single -- rather than multi-layered -- circles of identity. Both dismiss and discredit segments of the public who do not belong to the powerful group's direct circle of identity and both fortify their dominance by withholding power and resources from anyone who is not regarded as one of their own.

Sadly, this is precisely the political route which Israel currently takes. The deteriorative path that Israel's government and parliament are paving via this onslaught of recent and ongoing anti-democratic legislation dismantles the very infrastructure of the state's democracy. It will rid Israelis of the last tools we have to enable -- not to mention guarantee -- an equal distribution of power, resources, and opportunities for all Israelis, whatever their sex, ethnicity, sector, or religion might be. Continuing on a negative path could radically narrow the prospects of progressive laws such as the one approved by the cabinet earlier this month that are able to find their way to the government's table.

By doing so, Israel's leadership swiftly tightens the chauvinist linkage, taking it one more dangerous leap ahead. Which bring to mind a quotation ascribed to Levi Eshkol, Israel's third Prime Minister and legendary Minister of Finance, who was known for his wit. "Last year, we stood on the brink of an abyss", he was to have said, "This year we marched one step forward."

Michal Levertov is an Israeli journalist. She resides in Tel Aviv.

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