The Trouble With Egypt

The Trouble With Egypt

by Karim Abuawad

Since the night the Tunisian people forced their dictator to flee the North African country, I’ve been hearing people anticipating that the same fate would fall on the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In fact, the similarities abound between the situation in Tunisia and in Egypt: Tunisia’s Zain Bin Ali ruled for 23 years, Mubarak has been in power for 29, both of them amassed enormous fortunes, both have created “royal families” that rule so-called republics, both of them have been indifferent to the high level of unemployment (especially among highly qualified people and university graduates), and, finally, both had governments which for years have been described as “governments of businessmen.”

It is also worth mentioning that Egypt and Tunisia are countries that have well developed civil societies that are politically mature. This is important because these ingredients could mean the difference between the establishment of more democratic societies and utter chaos. If this is the case, then what are the reasons behind the stagnation of these two countries over the last few decades? The reasons are well known: notorious political prisons which imprisoned intellectuals as well as figures of the political opposition, a devastated economic situation which favored only a small and well-connected group of wealthy businessmen, an intense brain drain, and a particularly frightening situation at home that insured no one would even dare to object to the state quo.

These similarities shouldn’t give the impression that the recent uprisings are identical, or that they will necessarily yield the same results. It is one thing to be overly excited and optimistic about these massive, populous uprisings, and it’s another to be wary of their endgame. In Tunisia, the situation seems to be on the right track: there’s a new interim government which is comprised of new, independent faces, not those of the old regime, and the preparations are underway for new elections which are going to be monitored to insure their legitimacy.

In Egypt, however, things will be drastically different if the people indeed force their 82-year old dictator out. Egyptians will have to face two challenges that Tunisians didn’t have to deal with. The first challenge is an external one, the second is internal.

The external challenge has to do with Israel and United States. It is very unlikely these two will sit idly by and then congratulate the Egyptian people once they succeed in their undertaking. We can, and should, praise the people for their conviction and bravery, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of these outside forces and their ability to undermine the results of this uprising. Anyone familiar with the US involvement in revolutions and uprisings in Latin America and the Middle East won’t disagree with this assessment. In a piece that appeared in Haaretz under the title “Without Egypt, Israel Will Be Left With No Friends in Mideast,” Aluf Benn says:

The “cold peace” with Egypt was the most important strategic alliance Israel had in the Middle East. The security provided by the alliance gave Israel the chance to concentrate its forces on the northern front and around the settlements. Starting in 1985, peace with Egypt allowed for Israel to cut its defense budget, which greatly benefited the economy.

The one thing that’s impossible to predict at this point is what would Israel and the US do to preserve the strategic alliance between Israel and Egypt. Despite this uncertainty as to what their course of action will look like, I’m fairly convinced that they will make serious but subtle attempts to steer the post-uprising process. If you’re wondering why the US and Israeli governments are quite terse on what’s going on in Egypt, it is because they’re thinking really hard about possible ways to influence this uprising one way or another. The only meaningful thing the US government has said so far (aside from the empty slogans about the right to protest and violence not being the answer) was that the US aid to Egypt is now under review. The $1.5 billion which the US gives to the Egyptian government (not to Egypt) every year mostly come in the form of military hardware. As to economic aid, the numbers range between $250 million to $300.

The other challenge, the internal one that is, has to do with whether or not the Egypt that emerges will be secular. Egypt’s history as a secular country goes back to the first half of the19th century. Its then ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha was determined to modernize the country, building institutions, introducing modern industry, reforming the military and the economy, sending missions of scholars to France in order to learn European sciences, etc.

Today, there are quite strong political factions in Egypt that would like to change the secular nature of the country’s laws and institutions. It remains to be seen what role these factions would end up playing in this uprising and its aftermath. At the moment, the uprising doesn’t seems to be linked to any political faction, be it the Islamists, or leftist opposition.

For the new Egypt to be truly democratic, its political framework must necessarily have room for all of these diverse political factions, from Marxist progressives, to Arab nationalists, to the Muslim Brotherhood, given that they accept a secular and democratic system of governance.

[To read more about Egypt at As It Ought to Be, go here.]

2 thoughts on “The Trouble With Egypt

  1. This is remarkably concise and spot-on, Karim. You should do another piece on the situation and the region’s response to it. For example, is this some latter-day version of the dreaded “domino effect” whereby leftist resistance groups and populist movements overtake their oppressive regimes? Or are these two countries isolated events? If so, why?

    You know, I nearly did a month in Egypt a few years ago, and I have always regretted not doing it. Now I regret it even more, because I am so ignorant of so much going on and have no intuitive feel for the situation. I mean, I could quote facts and whatnot, but I have no sense of how these facts play together and which matter more, in the aggregate, to the people of Egypt (and the region).


  2. You know, even the people who do an intuitive feel for the situation didn’t expect any of this. These regimes have always been seen as invincible, and they managed to give people this impression through fear. What happened in Tunisia broke the fear barrier, if you will. For instance, you now see protests in Jordan calling for the resignation of the government (although I don’t think anything of importance will happen there), something you couldn’t have imagined two months ago.
    As to whether this will be a domino effect scenario, I think what ends happening in Egypt will decide that. Throughout the history of this region, drastic changes always take place in Egypt first (the uprising in Tunisia being an exception to this rule). So, Mubarak isn’t just protecting himself, he’s probably also protecting several other dictators because once he falls, others certainly will. If he goes, the next candidate would Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.


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