The Washington Post

Egypt is becoming a proxy conflict


Turkish pro-Morsi protesters carry posters depicting Egypt's top general, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday morning, Saudi Arabian Prince Saud al-Faisal, who is also the world's longest-serving foreign minister, announced that certain Arab states would be willing to replace any cut in Western aid to Egypt. For a few billion dollars to change hands would be unsurprising; Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have supported Egypt's military coup government rhetorically and financially. But the announcement was also a bit of slap at the United States, perhaps Saudi Arabia's most important ally, and a sign of the growing regional divide as outside powers jockey to shape Egypt's future.

Those proxy efforts are raising the stakes within Egypt, giving both the military and Islamists more reason to fight and less reason to compromise. They're also exacerbating some of the regional fault lines that first emerged when the Arab Spring began more than two years ago and that have only widened since. And they pose yet another dilemma for the Obama administration, which has appeared hesitant to take sides in Egypt.

Prince Saud's statement came in implicit response to some ever-so-gentle hints from the United States and European Union that they may consider cutting aid to Egypt to protest the July 3 military coup and deadly crackdowns on protesters. Cutting aid would be meant to punish Egypt's military rulers, a costly effort to finally rein in the generals who have defied the Western pleas for restraint. By replacing any aid cuts, Saudi Arabia (likely joined by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) would undercut the U.S. effort to change the generals' behavior, which Saudi Arabia has publicly supported.

It's not just the United States and Saudi Arabia that are at odds over Egypt. As the country descends into chaos, with the military violently suppressing Islamist protests and sectarian tensions rising, many of the region's biggest players are striving to push Egypt in one direction or another. It's not an all-out proxy conflict as in Syria, but it's hard to miss the pattern: regional and global powers, some of them allies, working against one another to empower their favored sides in the Egyptian crisis, hoping to determine the future of one of the Middle East's most important countries.

The foreign partisans in Egypt's crisis include the Middle East's most powerful actors, save perhaps Iran. The military coup government has been supported by most of the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which tend to fear the Islamist populism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates all offered $12 billion in aid just after the coup. Saudi King Abdullah last week announced that his country backs Egypt's crackdown "against terrorism," a show of support not just for the military government but for its fantastical official narrative that the mostly peaceful Islamist sit-ins were full of dangerous terrorists.

Israel is also lobbying for greater support for the coup government in Egypt, according to a New York Times report that said Israeli officials see the world's choice as "army or anarchy."

On the other side, Turkey and Qatar are standing behind the Egyptian Islamists who've been protesting on behalf of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. While ever-pragmatic Qatar has been careful to avoid taking sides too strongly since the coup, it was a prominent backer of the Muslim Brotherhood-allied Morsi government -- it offered aid, and its Arabic-language al-Jazeera network was widely perceived as pro-Morsi. Turkey, which is helmed by its own democratically elected Islamist government (and has a history of military coups), has condemned Egypt's military government and called the recent crackdown a "clear massacre." Islamist movements around the world, including in Afghanistan, are rallying in support of Egypt's Brotherhood protesters.

There are divisions within some of those countries, as well. Saudi Islamists are expressing public outrage over their government's approach to Egypt. The squabbling has gotten bad enough that Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal fired a popular TV host over his criticism of the Egyptian military government. Within the United States, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have criticized the Egyptian military takeover, have found themselves at odds with American conservatives who see the Brotherhood as a threat. Those internal Saudi and American divisions may not mean much for Egypt right now, but if the domestic in-fighting gets bad enough, it could shape foreign policies.

One of the biggest problems in Egypt right now is that neither side appears to see any room for compromise. Both are taking impossibly maximalist positions: The military wants to eradicate Islamists from public life, though they have millions of supporters, and the Islamists are demanding the reinstatement of Morsi. Neither is likely to happen, and the conflict is probably only going to worsen if both sides believe their best choice is try anyway, no matter the cost.

Outside powers, by offering their respective sides in Egypt such unqualified support, are not just raising the stakes of the conflict. Keep in mind that both the military and Islamists have argued that they represent the "real" Egypt. When foreign powers confirm Egyptians' biases, telling them they're right to either protest endlessly or to treat the Brotherhood as "terrorists," they're increasing the likelihood that each side will seek a total victory that's probably not possible. That could mean prolonging the police and sectarian violence that has killed hundreds of Islamists and targeting Christians for reprisal. It could also make it tougher to get anyone near a negotiating table.

Some Gulf states did sign on to a U.S.- and European-led effort to negotiate a peace deal from behind the scenes. But when that deal fell apart, the Gulf states went back to their respective corners of the crisis.

Syria's conflict didn't ease up when it turned into a regional proxy conflict. That doesn't mean that outside powers are going to push Egypt into a Syria-style civil war, of course. But this is one battle that they seem willing to fight to the last Egyptian.

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