Egypt: Out of the Frying Pan into the Frying Pan
We don't know what shape Egypt's political direction will take. One bargaining process that's going on is negotiations between the United States and Egypt in which Washington is the patron of the Muslim Brotherhood. Put roughly, the U.S. proposal is that American aid and recognition will be given to the military takeover in exchange for the release of Muslim Brotherhood and other prisoners of the army, and a chance for the Brotherhood to participate in fair elections and in a coalition government.
Is this good for Egypt? Of course not.
Such a government would be inoperable and would daily increase the tensions. It prevents the understanding by the Islamists that they are defeated and must be submissive. It employs the naivete that showing compromise (weakness) will bring conciliation.
Is this good for U.S. interests? Of course not.
It can only help if one believes that the Brotherhood and Salafists will be moved by American backing and reciprocate by not staging terrorist attacks.
Anyway, the new regime will have twice as much Saudi and other Arab monarchy aid than the West would offer on tougher conditions, though of course this will not be advanced military aid.
One thing is for sure: a year or two from now, Egyptians will not be happy with the current regime. Why is that so certain?There are social, historical, and objective reasons. Let me focus on the less controversial latter ones.
Egypt is a country where too many people live on too little land without many resources. It is also trying to become an industrial society too late in history with too much competition.
Egypt’s social problems are perhaps more the result than the cause of the difficulties. And discussing these would take a lot of words many of which you’ve already heard. The economic problems will not go away no matter what happens. There are no billions of dollars in aid out there; no—if you forgive please this phrase—Allah ex machina. If massive international support per capita couldn’t get the Palestinian Authority of 2.5 million people going how is it going to happen in a place with 35 times more people?
Then, too, is the political situation. There are now three factions which we can broadly call the military-civilian complex (the ruling class for the last half-century and its supporters); the Islamists; and the “moderates.”
The military-civilian complex are the same people who have always run the country. They have not done a great job, with marked greed, corruption, and incompetence. If this were a movie the title could be ”Back to the Past.” It will be a more tolerable Mubarak situation, just as it would have been if that president had turned over power five years ago, as the military-civilian elite wanted him to do.
Westerners may have deluded themselves into thinking that Egyptians changed their opinion in two years but most have not. Many of those who voted for the Islamists may have decided they prefer the comforts of a relatively benign dictatorship but lots of Egyptians of Egyptians oppose the counterrevolution.
What is the saving grace? First, as Westerners continually misunderstand what might be called the power of power. People go with the winner. Whoever governs is popular until things just get beyond toleration, as happened in Iran and Syria. That process takes a long time to build up.
Second, the Muslim Brotherhood, it is hard to put this in polite Western terms, is either going to be craven or murderous. It remembers what happened in the 1950s—when the regime crushed it, sent its leaders to concentration camps, and hung some of them. The Brotherhood may snarl but it is frightened of the army.
Still, no doubt, many of the Salafists and some Brotherhood militants will take up arms, especially in Upper Egypt (the south) and the Sinai. It will not be a civil war but as in the 1990s, it will be an insurgency. [To read about the fighting in the 1990s, see my book Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics online or download it for free.]
In addition, the Islamists, especially the Salafists, are deeply divided and never seem to overcome personal, ideological, and organizational rivalries. The army will simply kill anyone who fights it or imprison them. In the 1990s it sometimes imprisoned the parents of insurgents until the wanted man gave himself up.
Finally, there is the “moderate opposition” which will become restive under the return of the traditional elite. There are a lot of people who are celebrating today and will be protesting tomorrow. I want to be very clear that there are millions of good people who want better lives for their families and one should sympathize with their democratic aspirations.
But the truth is that their leaders are incompetent, the quarrels among the groups will reemerge, and some of these groups are undemocratic or anti-democratic. An Egypt led by Muhammad al-Baradei, the spokesman of the opposition and a candidate for its leadership, would not be a better place than one led by a technocratic candidate of the military. His mismanagement of the International Atomic Energy Agency and favoring Iran was obvious.
It all reminds me of an article written by a Western newspaper correspondent about the Balkans in August 1940. Nazi Germany had just given its ally, Hungary, the Romanian-ruled territory of Transylvania. He asked an old Jewish man living there what he thought about it. “The best thing that could happen,” he said, “would be that the Romanians left and the Hungarians never arrived.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s favorite Middle East leader, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, shows how much he favors the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan’s EU minister said, “One Mursi will go, a thousand Mursi’s will come in Egypt." Erdogan has said similar things.
It is understandable that the Turkish Islamists are uncomfortable about that kind of coup since it was once done against their predecessors. But the line should be drawn for U.S. policy: those who favor Islamist radicalism whether in Afghanistan, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, or Hamas and Hizballah are enemies of the United States. Those who oppose it are at least potential allies.