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Spengler

Egypt at the Brink: My Contribution to a New Book on the Sunni States

June 1st, 2014 - 5:02 am

The so-called Arab Spring in Egypt began in January 2011 with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, an American ally of thirty years’ standing, and ended in November with the restoration of the country’s cold-war alliance with Russia. America’s determination to depose Mubarak’s military-backed regime and to lead the most populous Arab country towards democracy had nearly unanimous bi-partisan support, with the Obama administration vying with the Republican mainstream in its zeal to sweep out the old regime erred and foster a Western-style democracy. The drive for a new democratic Egypt was buoyed by a wave of popular sentiment, and serenaded by rapturous media accounts of young, hip revolutionaries toppling a sclerotic dictatorship.

Instead of moving forward to a new era of democracy, Egypt set the clock back to 1973, before then President Anwar Sadat expelled Russian advisors and prepared the way for an alliance with the United States.

Egypt’s political crisis stemmed from external economic shocks. It faces no external threats, and only minor and ultimately managable internal threats from Islamic radicals including elements of al-Qaeda. Although Egypt fought three wars with Israel from 1947 through 1973, a cold peace with the Jewish state has held firm for nearly four decades, and there is no conceivable scenario under which Jerusalem would seek conflict with Cairo. The radical Hamas government in Gaza represents a prospective haven for terrorists and a source of weapons, but the Egyptian military has shown itself fully capable of controlling its common border with the Palestinian rump state. Although the use of Nile water is the source of a running dispute with Ethiopia, it is far below the level of a prospective casus belli. Egypt’s neighbors (Libya, Sudan) are too weak to engage Egypt militarily. Egypt’s military budget is several times the combined spending of its neighbors excluding Israel, and its air force flies 216 F-16s.

Egypt and its Neighbors: Armed Forces Comparison

Personnel

Budget

Egypt

468,500

$28 billion

Sudan

109,300

$4 billion

Ethiopia

182,500

$0.4 Billion

Libya

35,000

NA

 

Egypt is a unique, standalone case of a country unburdened by external threats and comfortable in its alliances (with the United States and the Sunni Arab world) whose civic life was undermined by the consequences of economic backwardness in a changing world economy. Its military exists less to defend the country than to impose social order from the top.

It is a banana republic without the bananas.  Once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, it imports half its caloric consumption. It ranks 118th among the world’s nations in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.  After sixty-two years in power, the country’s military rulers own 30% of its economy. Most of the country remains locked in the premodern world of traditional society characterized by illiteracy, genital mutiliation and consanguineous marriages. It is a horrible example of how socialism and cultural backwardness can push an economy past the point of no return, such that no policy remedy can reverse the deterioration through the actions of domestic economic factors. The country came to the brink of starvation during the first months of 2013 and survives as of this writing on a subsidy from Arab oil states of about $15 billion a year.

Because Egypt’s economic problems are so intractable the likelihood is that the crisis will deepen over time. Egypt’s military will succeed in crushing the Muslim Brotherhood as an organized force, but elements of the Brotherhood as well as overtly terrorist organizations will remain active and seek opportunity to destabilize the military government. Egypt’s allies among  Sunni states in the Persian Gulf will maintain an economic subsidy sufficient to avert outright starvation for the time being, because the Sunni states seek unity against the threat posed by Iran and its Shi’ite allies in Syria and Lebanon. Such a subsidy cannot last forever, and Egypt’s medium-term prospects for stability are poor.

* * *

America’s best option is to work with the Saudis and the Egyptian military to reduce the likelihood that any of these risks might be realized. In the short term there is no alternative to Gulf State financial support to keep the lights on and the bakeries open. Restoration of order might bring some amelioration by restoring Egypt’s tourist industry, which earned only $5.9 billion in 2013, about half the $11 billion earned in 2008.  In the medium term, Egypt requires extensive investment in infrastructure, agriculture and manufacturing to reverse six decades of economic mismanagement. The United States and Europe are poorly positioned to undertake such investments, which involve high risk and a slow payout of returns. It is more likely that China will step in to the void that is now the Egyptian economy. As the dominant investor in Africa, China has a long-term interest in transportation and telecommunications links between the Eurasian continent and Africa, for which Egypt is a natural bridge.

The cumulative errors in American foreign policy—long-term support for an ineffective and corrupt military government, the sudden abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, and the flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood—may lead to a vacuum of influence in Egypt which China eventually may fill, erasing the effect of decades of American diplomacy and investment.

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An all-out conventional war between Sunni and Shiite national and ethnic groups would be helpful.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (18)
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Actully Sisi coup may have been Egypt's Tiananmen square moment, supplied with Libyan oil, investment from gulf states, abundant cheap labour, and infrastructure upgrade by china ironically, Egypt may one day become a regional manufacturing center.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Once more...flavorless! When does a western writer ever believe that the lack of freedom might be the issue?
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Let's be real here - what is it that the Egyptians could make, grow, mine, manufacture, invent, or sell to the rest of the world? Name a single product that could be exported for hard currency. What about in 10 years? 20 years? They could perhaps be self sufficient in food, if they were willing to evict thousands of poor farmers from their lands. Short of that...what else is there?

The only thing I can think of is mercenary forces. Why does Saudi Arabian support them? So they can provide endless Sunni cannon fodder if the Shia (Iran) becomes problemmatic. The $15 billion a year is a long term insurnace policy, nothing more. Perhaps they could invade Libya, take the oil, and restore order. Yemen is also a possibility if the Saudis think things are spinning out of control there. No matter what happens, there will be a lot of dead Egyptians.

All we can do is delay the explosion, we cannot difuse the bomb.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Although Egypt fought three wars with Israel from 1947 through 1973"
Three?????
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
While the US Government has undoubtedly mismanaged (relations with) Egypt, it is less clear that Russian involvement with Egypt is necessarily bad.

US weapons sales to Egypt were funded by the US - we paid Egypt to buy our weapons. There was always a conflict in weapons quality, so that we maintained the appearance of parity with Israel. Now, we no longer need worry about this.

And who cares if the Egyptians have Russian weapons instead of American weapons. Either way, Egypt over matches all their immediate neighbors with the exception of Israel. If the Islamists do ultimately triumph and foolishly return to a hot war with Israel, better they do so with Russian weapons instead of American weapons.

Also, Russia has strong relations with both Israel and other Arab states. Russia is more likely to be perceived by the Arabs as an 'honest broker' with Israel than America can be. Together with the fact that Russia follows a classic realpolitik foreign policy, Russia will be unlikely to dump Israel in favor of the Arabs who really offer them nothing but influence.

Modern Russia is no longer the old Soviet Union and we need not view this through the outdated Cold War lens. This is not to imply that Russia is an emerging liberal democracy, but at least they can be counted on to act rationally in Russian interests.

In contrast, America doesn't even seem to stand up for American interests any more, let alone those of our allies. Sadly, the current US administration has damaged relations with nearly every country in the world. Indeed, what country do we now have better relations with since President Obama took office? It seems we Americans are the preachy, inconstant friends of late. Food for thought.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
With some more reflection, there is one significant loss for the US if the Russians take over supply of military hardware to Egypt: Egypt will no longer be dependent on the US for logistical resupply. As long as Egypt was dependent on US support, they could not realistically attack Israel.

That said, the Russians probably don't have a great reason to favor Egypt, other Arab country, or even Iran over Israel in a hot conflict. Russia is better served with lingering tension.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Not sure that I see the Chinese making great inroads in Egypt ... there's no real economic, cultural, or historical links between them other than China dabbling there as a means of playing off the Americans, Europeans, and Russians.

Russian influence is much more worrisome, given their longstanding interventions in the Middle East, having supported the Nasserites during the Cold War and today meddling extremely effectively in Syria and Iran. We ought to be focusing very hard on frustrating and repulsing Russian influence whereever we find it, and especially so in the Middle East.

The economic aid that Egypt needs seems to be coming mostly from the Saudi's who are desperate to prevent any influence by Russia and their clients in Syria and Iran. Let them continue to do that. Perhaps we can provide some targeted economic development aid mostly as a matter of maintaining good will and influence, but keep it on a very limited basis.

All of this is far beyond the ken of either Obama, his current diplomatic and national security team, and of HRC. We'll have to hope that treading water for the next two and a half years will be enough to avoid a complete destabilization of the Middle East - which is precisely what Putin is working overtime to achieve. Thankfully, Putin is also somewhat distracted by events in the Ukraine.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Was surprised to read this from Goldman:
"..... we should cooperate with China in investment in Egypt: here China’s influence is economic rather than strategic, and its investments represent no threat to American interests."

I could not disagree more. Nothing that China does, nothing at all, anywhere, is without the strongest strategic interests of China as its primary stimulus, if you'll pardon that terrible unintended pun, which occurred to me as I was typing this, but decided not to edit it out.

Then Goldman seems to have had second thoughts, as he writes at the very last:
"....may lead to a vacuum of influence in Egypt which China eventually may fill, erasing the effect of decades of American diplomacy and investment."

China's investment inside Egypt follows China's investment in other parts of Africa, cf:

"China’s African investments: Who benefits?
By Michael Gerson, Published: March 28, 2011
LILONGWE, Malawi

The skyline of this city — what little there is of it — is a Chinese creation. Chinese money built the Parliament building. A $100 million, Chinese-funded hotel and conference center is rising. The Chinese government is constructing a soccer stadium, a decidedly popular move......"

Finish his article on your own Readers, it'd take up too much space here. We cannot belittle the efforts of a country of one billion, and multiplying, people anywhere these efforts appear, for whatever superficial reasons.



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15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
David - Advising the current Administration to do anything right, and for it to do it right is to believe in the tooth fairy. We can only hope that the next Administration will more competent than the current one (although that should not be all that difficult). We can also they will listen to people like yourself and undo some of the incredible damage the leader from (his) behind to our foreign policy.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
An all-out conventional war between Sunni and Shiite national and ethnic groups would be helpful.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Other than the bedouin there are no such ethnic groups and almost no Shiite. Egypt is remarkably homogenized and nationalist.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
We should be encouraging that quietly, here and there; but we must be very, very careful as that age-old expression, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend", can backfire against us from both sides and in unexpected ways.

Look at Maliki and Karzai and the Iranians. The double-deal and double-cross are hallmarks of our Muslim enemy. Whatever their tribal or ethnic or theological differences, we Western Infidels are Muslims' ultimate enemy.

15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Such remarkable lack of delusion Mr. Goldberg. I hardly know what to say. Well, I remember Barry Rubin saying Egyptian democrats were weak and divided and it was going to be the MB or the Military in power when the rest of commentariat was swooning over Twitter and assuring us how the MB were really moderates. No wonder our Muslim friends get so annoyed - no matter what they do we keep insisting they are moderate. Heck, they have even taken to crucifying people in Syria they are so frustrated with us.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
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