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HindustanTimes Tue,16 Sep 2014
Wheels within wheels
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
August 23, 2013
First Published: 23:18 IST(23/8/2013)
Last Updated: 23:22 IST(23/8/2013)

We do live in a bipolar world. Not in the manner of the pre-Berlin Wall age. But in the psychiatric sense where there are swings between euphoria (Arab Spring) and deep depression (Egypt).

During a recent Press interaction, a spokesman for the White House was asked whether he would describe the displacement of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt as a “coup” (some may churlishly argue that the military was simply restoring that group to its preferred state since it’s officially registered as a non-governmental organisation).

He answered: “We have determined that it is not in the best interest of the United States to make that determination.”

“Coup” is after all a four-letter word for Washington’s masterminds, since that characterisation will immediately trigger suspension of American aid to Cairo’s generals, who have been practising principles learnt from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad School of Governance.

The spokesman was asked how the Obama administration was holding the new military-backed regime accountable. To which, he responded, “When I say ‘hold them accountable’ I mean we’re going to remind them that they made that promise and encourage them to keep it.” That promise was a transition to a democratically elected government, the sort of promise purveyors of pyramid schemes are happy to make.

Questioned on whether America’s threats were working on Cairo, he replied, “In terms of figuring out how to encourage the interim government to make good on their promise to transition to a democratically elected government there is something that we’re working on. And hopefully it’s something that they’re working on.”

Another questioner asked, “How stupid can you get?”

The reply came: “How stupid do you want me to be?”

No, hang on. That last exchange actually figured in the 1955 film Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, wherein the legendary comedy couple went to Cairo.

There’s very little comedy in the violence unleashed in Egypt, part of a pattern of mayhem in the Arab Springlet states. Once upon a time America was drunk on power, a singular superstate, but at this time, the Obama administration would have to be under the influence to even think its admonitions matter in West Asia even as the Kremlin makes a comeback and Beijing barrels along.

We do, in a sense, live in a bipolar world. Not in the manner of the pre-Berlin Wall age when regions of influence were carved out between the United States and the Soviets, but in the psychiatric sense where there are swings between euphoria (see, Spring, Arab), and deep depression (see Egypt, summer of 2013). And as with disorders of this nature, the analysts in Washington are unable to understand the ailment afflicting these hot couch potatoes.

This isn’t just the dawn of the post-American world but of a post-American worldview. Democracy is a suspect project and America’s dollar diplomacy is diminished as well, since the Saudis are willing to use a fraction of their petro pelf to compensate Egypt for the threatened US withdrawal of aid. The Obama doctrine has led to such an incredibly shrinking footprint that even France and Canada pursue more muscular foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is pressing his suit for a larger role in the country. He went walkabout tirelessly, sans his fatigues, appearing like he had stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue, leading Cairene media to speculate that he’s all dressed up for possible elections this winter. A proposed amendment to the country’s constitution may mark a return to the individual candidate referendum-like vote that once saw former presidents repeatedly re-elected with over 90%  majorities. That could suit el-Sisi, a man who wears dark glasses while reading from speeches, well. And hark back to the age of the deposed Hosni Mubarak, whose likely liberty will contrast with the Freedom and Justice Party’s Morsi’s tenure in a cell.

There are so many wheels within wheels that it could get the White House spokesman’s head spinning as matters come full circle in Egypt. With one difference: It may no longer be within America’s sphere of influence.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal


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