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Anyone who makes hard and fast predictions about the future of Egyptian government, much less the Middle East, will probably look foolish in a few weeks. It is equally unrealistic to prophecy doom and disaster and to prophecy a rosy and democratic future.
If the Egyptian revolt heralds a new democratic era, than of course it is a great event in the history of the Middle East, an event that will encourage peace and prosperity.
Those who seek to promote "stability" through dictatorships need to remember that despotisms usually end in revolutions and that in the long run, no situation in which most of the people are unhappy can be stable if they have a more promising model. Others should be aware that it is likely that in any country of the Middle East,, and especially in Egypt, most of the people will probably be desperately unhappy in any regime: The nationalists and modernizers will be unhappy under an Islamist regime, the Islamists will be unhappy under a nationalist or Westernized regime and most people will be desperately poor for the foreseeable future under any regime.
In the best case, Egypt and Tunisia will serve as examples for their neighbors in the Middle East, and we will, as Elliot Abrams predicted recently, see a chain of such popular revolts across the region. Al_Jazeera commentators see an "Arab Intifada." Such scenarios are unlikely.
The situation is fluid. It is easier to start a revolution than to know where it will end, and most of the "experts" have thus far been wrong about Egypt. At this moment Egypt is formally ruled by the army, a situation which has existed in fact since the Nasser coup. The army, as usual in such cases, promises reform and democratic elections. The promises may or may not be fulfilled.
We can discern a few possible scenarios:
Democracy in the Middle East -- Middle Eastern dictatorships are not all the same. Egypt and Tunisia are special cases in that they are Westernized and had rather aged rulers who had continue in office for many years. Their Western patrons may have restrained the most brutal government action. Significantly there was no unrest in Libya, Syria or Iran. In Iran, protestors have been quietly hanged at a steady rate since 2009. In Jordan, vigorous action by a young ruler may have discouraged revolt. In Yemen and Algeria protests have thus far been less successful. There might be an epidemic of revolutions, but these will not necessarily result in democracy, and the "epidemic" will be confined to a small subset of countries. .
Democracy in one country -- A new constitution in Egypt might bring to power a middle class reformist government that includes reformists such as Saad-Eddin Ibrahim, Muhammad ElBaradei and Aymaan Nour, and ushers in a new era of democratic reform and good government. This is undoubtedly the scenario that U.S. President ObamaVice President Biden and other Western leaders imagine: Egypt as Switzerland on the Nile. It is not likely to happen. Egypt is not identical to other Middle Eastern countries, but it is certainly unlike any European country. The middle class that supports the moderate reform parties is small and weak. Governments must support the lopsided economic inequalities and are served by a civil service in which bribes (bakshish) are the norm. Egypt's economic problems are not amenable to easy solutions. Any government that is liberal or democratic is going to be vulnerable to demagogic, populist and radical takeover bids. Nobody knows if the famous "Arab Street" is really like the pictures of Tahrir square made famous by al-Jazeera, or if it is more like a dusty road full of donkey droppings in a forgotten fellah village near the upper Nile.
Westerners beware. The Middle East is not like your post-industrial country. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example is emphatically unlike American Evangelical Christians, despite Western misunderstanding. Those who talk about a cyber-revolt in Egypt and point to the role of Facebook and Twitter would do well to remember that at the beginning of last year, Egypt had an Internet penetration rate of about 20% and a Facebook penetration rate of about 5%. If this revolt is a cyber-Intifada, it must be supported by a small minority of urbanized intellectual and professionals. This minority could not necessarily sustain a popular government. On the other hand, in the Middle East, politics are made in the cities. The city folk are relatively more affluent, influential and sympathetic to modern ideas about democracy and liberal society. Country dwellers are more traditionalist and authoritarian poor and poorly educated. On the other hand, the countryside probably supplies most of the army rank and file. Over half of Egypt's population is still rural (rural population averages about 7-10% in typical Western countries). Egypt is becoming urbanized at the rate of 1.8% a year. Cities like Cairo house a large population that was raised in a traditionalist rural society. Many of them remain poor, because population has expanded much faster than the economy. Many of the people are bewildered by the rapid changes, resentful of ideas such as equality for women and non-Muslims, and easily convinced that these ideas are at the root of their misery. That is the engine that drives Islamist radicalism in many Middle Eastern counties.
The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is the largest political force in Egypt and has been for many years. It draws on the frustrations of the rural populace and the urban poor. It is fanatically opposed to democracy and rights for women and minorities and is fanatically opposed to peace with Israel. It has never made a secret of any of these ideas. It is therefore rather bizarre and incredible that American "experts" see the Muslim Brothers as some kind of democratic reform movement that might be shaped to the ideas of an Ayman Nour, a Muhammad ElBaradai or any other democratic reformer. The crowds in Tahrir square have been there for quite a while. It is impossible to imagine that there is no organization behind them at all, especially as they defied massive use of force which resulted in about 300 casualties. This suggests that the Egyptian revolution, while voicing of genuine grievances, might have hd some outside help.
Continued Dictatorship - A latrine by another name has the same smell. Since the officers' coup that brought Gamal Nasser to power, Egypt has had about the same type of government: A one party mukhabarat (secret police) state where elections are rigged. Egypt has had three different rulers of which Mubarak was prototypical. If anything Mubarak was less tyrannical and deadly than the popular Gamal Nasser. At least, he did not start and lose any wars.
Despite all the rosy talk, it is well to remember that Egypt is ruled by a military council today. They have dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution. Elections remain only a promise, The army enjoys the support of the people only as long as it gives the crowd what it wants. It may not enjoy the support of the Americans if it does not deliver free elections. If the army does allow free elections, the officers and the Americans may not like the resulting government. These are some of the inherent tensions and contradictions, and nobody ca say how they will be resolved.
Islamic Republic - The people of the countryside and the rank and file of the army probably support an Islamic Muslim Brotherhood - type government. The revolution has certainly gotten loud support from radicals outside Egypt, including the Hamas, the Iranians, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and Hassan Nassrallah of the Hezbollah.
An authoritative al-Jazeera commentary assesses:
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood announced they will not run in the next presidential election or stand for parliament. However, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt, has never participated formally in any elections. As the Hezbollah proved in Lebanon, the political future of a country can be altered by a movement before it participates directly in the political process.
On the other hand, there are certainly other voices active in Egyptian politics. An article in the Egyptian journal al Ahram proclaimed that "Egypt is not Iran". The author noted:
The article also noted that Egypt might be like Iran in a very different way from that intended by Islamists.:
Despite the enthusiasm of the Iranian Ayatollahs for the revolution, Egypt is not Iran. The Egyptian revolution is not an emulation of the Iranian Islamist revolution, and it need not end in theocratic autocracy. Egypt is an Arab country, unlike Turkey or Iran and also has a deeply national sentiment. It is a Sunni Muslim country and is likely to reject any government that can be identified with Shi'a Iran.
"Saudi Arabia" - An Islamic, conservative Egypt will not necessarily be ant-American. The tone of the regime might be dictated by the kind of conservatism that emanates from al Azhar university, which regards political Islam and advocacy of "Jihad" as anathema. It is not impossible to imagine an Egyptian regime that adheres to a conservative kind of Islam, much like Saudi Arabia. Such a government would probably win the support of the economic elite, the army, the Americans, the Saudis and the rural populace, to the chagrin of modernizing elements. Curiously, few have raised this possibility.
It is impossible to know what model the "stable" version of the Egyptian government will follow, and it will probably be many months before the situation stabilizes.
Americans and other Western governments who want to help Egypt achieve democracy can do more and must do less than they have done. It is probably wise for outsiders not to make announcements of support for this or that person or group. Egyptians are hardly likely to heed advice from foreigners, especially when the advice is fatuous and seems to change each day. On the other hand, the United States has well defined interests in Egypt and has every right to express and clarify those interests. Americans do not want Egypt to become a base for al-Qaeda or Iranian radicalism. The United states will not want its military hardware to be used in a another disastrous war against Israel or in some other Jihadist adventure. American arms and support should not be used to support an embarrassing and repulsive despotism either. This should have been clear to Mr. Mubarak.
The Egyptians are not obliged to listen, but the Americans are not obliged to supply Egypt with modern aircraft and parts for the factories that assemble Abrams tanks.
The best single thing any government could do in Egypt, and the best thing the American government could do for Egypt right now would be to convert a part of the hefty military aid grant that Egypt receives into civilian economic aid. This policy will no doubt be resisted by the Egyptian Army. But no matter what government Egypt has, it will fail if it cannot address the economic woes that may have triggered the revolt.
The worst things any Western government can do for its own interests and for the Egyptian people would be to euphemize and minimize the dangers of radical tyranny in Egypt in the name of "democracy," or to go along with yet another military dictatorship in the name of "stability."
Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000788.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.
Replies: 5 comments
Excellent breakdown of the situation
Posted by Elad @ 02/14/2011 01:35 PM CST
Egypt like all Middle East countries must transform their Economies from near
I think Israel is in grave danger for not settling for peace to the 67 borders.
As oil dwindles so will Israel's importance to the West. Israel should accept
Now is the time of decision.
Posted by blueartist @ 02/15/2011 02:17 AM CST
I agree with blueartist. The times they are a changing.
Posted by Kiev500 @ 03/17/2011 04:06 AM CST
I've waited for an article on the developing situation in Libya and change in the wider region. Frankly I'm shocked and dissappointed that there has not been one. I have some comments that need to be said, and it appears this is currently the only available place to put them.
Firstly, a UN resolution for protection of civilians? I've never seen "civilians" riding around in trucks with big machine guns mounted in the back. I've never seen civilians brandishing AK47s and shooting rocket propelled grenades. I've never seen civilians advancing upon the opposition and taking territory. ALL THESE THINGS HAVE BEEN DONE BY THE OPPOSITION FORCES AGAINST GADHAFI. They are not civilians, they are legitimate combatants and mercenaries. Who funded and armed them?
Obama has said publically that "Gadhafi must leave". This sounds exactly like what GW Bush said in regards to Saddam in Iraq. It's also what Obama said about Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It's no coincidence. In fact, much of Obama's first term in office looks more like GW Bush's third term than the first term of a progressive Democratic administration that promised real change. Obama is actually a neo-conservative agent, a poser who got elected by pretending to be a Democrat. Actions of the president speak more clearly than words from his unkept campaign promises. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Posted by Kiev500 @ 03/18/2011 08:48 PM CST
Yea, regarding the sudden concern of the USA for the lives and safety of Libyans, one has to wonder... why now after decades of ambivalence? And why didn't Obama care about the lives and safety of Palestinians in Gaza during the last Israeli invasion which killed over 1600, many of them women and children? Or why didn't Obama act to protect the lives of civilians in Lebanon when Israel invaded there in 2006? Over the last 40 years, has Gadhafi really killed as many people as Israel has killed Palestinians and Lebabese (either directly or indirectly)? Why the double standard? WHO IS BEHIND THIS?
Posted by Crazy Horse @ 03/19/2011 01:21 AM CST
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