On the Boil

Walter Russell Mead says “the Middle East is on the boil”. The Cold War is over. History has returned to its “normal velocity”. It bears recalling that the Cold war saw both the 1967 and 1973 Wars. So normal velocity does not necessarily augur good news.


Nowhere has history come back with a vengeance than in Egypt and Turkey. Michael Totten looks at what he calls “Egypt’s Botched Revolution”. It seemed to start out going one place only to finish up in another. But appearances can be deceiving.

The army and the Islamists have a strange relationship with each other that neither explains or is honest about. The state has viciously repressed the Brotherhood at times while at other times using it as either a sword or a shield against liberals.

“It has been like this since 1952,” Mustafa said. “They have an old relationship. The Free Officers who made the 1952 coup had no real ideology aside from attacking the old regime and forcing King Farouk to step down. They had no other agenda. So they depend on the Muslim Brotherhood which has some popularity. When they clash it’s over the issue of sharing power. It’s not an ideological dispute. So sometimes the army puts them in jail, and other times the army coordinates with them as long as it looks like they won’t have to share power. But now they have an understanding with the army. They’re fine.” …

If she’s right, I suspect the army is working with the Brotherhood mostly for pragmatic reasons. Their ideologies are different, but they overlap in some ways. Both are anti-Western and anti-Zionist. Neither are interested in secular liberal government where religion is strictly a private affair, where the economy is beyond the control of the state, and where military officers follow orders from elected civilians.


In some sense Egypt hasn’t changed at all. It’s gone from an officially pro-American but culturally anti-American country with a peace treaty with Israel to the same thing but without the need to keep to its old bargains. Now it has to re-examine its positions from first principles. Should it continue to be at peace with Israel? Totten’s sources say that Egypt fears the Israeli mailed glove.

“Egyptian-Israeli relations will be decided by the army,” Heggy said, “and the army is totally against confrontation with Israel. In the streets people say they want to renegotiate the Camp David Agreement, but the army will never go for anything like this.”

“Is that because the army knows it lost the 1973 war even though the government pretends Egypt won?” I said. Just days before I had seen the otherworldly propaganda at the panorama, propaganda that is apparently taken seriously by ordinary Egyptians.

But it also hungers to reclaim its ideological leadership of the Arab world, something it cannot easily do without rounding on the Jewish state.  Whether fear or ambition get the upper hand no one can say. As Totten’s sources say, “it depends on the street.”

Egypt’s geopolitical clout fell after it signed that treaty. It is no longer anything like a mini regional superpower. There is no reason to believe, however, that the elite in the armed forces wouldn’t like Egypt to rise once again if it can unshackle itself from American requests that it be a status quo power. They clearly see themselves as bigger and more important that that, and serious moves in that direction should play very well on the street.


And on the Egyptian President Obama’s popularity is lower than that of George Bush.  The Zogby polling organization concluded that U.S.  ratings “across the Arab world have plummeted … they are lower than at the end of the Bush Administration, and lower than Iran’s favorable ratings (except in Saudi Arabia). … Today, President Obama’s favorable ratings across the Arab World are 10% or less.”

Michael says “no doubt Washington and Jerusalem prefer to do business with the military instead of the Brotherhood even if the regime was founded in a spirit of Arab Nationalism and Egyptian supremacy. But what if the U.S. and Israel will soon have to contend with both?” (And please donate to Michael to fund his research). 

The likelihood Washington will have to contend with the Brotherhood is proportional to the perceived correlation of forces with Israel. If Turkey becomes openly hostile to Israel, if American support flags, if a Palestinian state is announced, if hostilities break out in which a clamor rises in the Arab world for action against Israel, then the clamor on the Egyptian street will rise to a crescendo, and very little prospect that it will be changed by a President more unpopular in Egypt than he is in Texas.

But that doesn’t keep him from claiming a role in events.  Washington’s function has changed from that of a damper to that of an accelerant without even the virtue of knowing in which direction it is accelerating.  It is for change, whatever it may be, because it sounds nice; because the administration cannot be seen to as behindhand even when it is. Walter Russell Mead writes that America should try to manage change so that it goes in a positive direction. And he’s right.


This is the prize that American policymakers need to keep in view going forward. The goal is not to maximize American dominance, but to do what we can to steer the region towards a pattern of development that is broadly compatible with our global vision. Assertions of American power may from time to time be necessary in this volatile and vital part of the world, but on the whole our interest is to help a new Middle East emerge. The old one, after all, was not particularly nice.

Yet that would be asking too much of an administration that has more spin cycles than a washing machine. It doesn’t do planning or policy. It does talking points. Rather than being guided from the Oval Office it is more probable that events in the Middle East will be result from the nonlinear interaction of regional actors. It will unfold as if by accident, without a grand plan; with nothing to indicate it is being guided by Washington, except as claimed in retrospect. Whether it will end well or ill is an answer nobody knows until the teleprompter is erected on the day after. In the meantime we can only watch and hope everyone makes it out in one piece.

The betting is now completed. The V.C. in charge waves the .45 around and calls for silence. Then, closing the cylinder containing the single bullet, he points the revolver at the ceiling and clicks through the empty chambers until the revolver goes off with a roar. Bits of thatch flutter down from the ceiling.

The V.C. guards shout enthusiastically and grin. Merle sits motionless. The South Vietnamese across the table from him begins shaking uncontrollably. The V.C. in charge now reloads the revolver with one cartridge, snaps the cylinder shut, puts the gun on the table between Merle and the South Vietnamese and gives it a good spin. The revolver slows and finally comes to a stop pointing at Merle.

Merle stares at it for a long beat. Then he picks it up, spins the cylinder, cocks it, puts it to his temple and pulls the trigger. The hammer falls on an empty chamber with a loud click. Merle places the revolver back on the table and pushes it toward the South Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese begins to tremble again. Fumbling horribly he finally manages to get the gun in his hand. He spins the cylinder, cocks the hammer and puts the gun to his temple. The gun weaves around. The South Vietnamese closes his eyes and pulls the trigger. There is a loud click.

Merle takes the revolver again. He spins it, cocks it — all in one smooth motion — puts it to his temple and pulls the trigger. There is another click. Merle pushes the gun back across the table. This time the South Vietnamese takes it up with sudden confidence. He spins the cylinder, cocks it, puts it to his temple and pulls on the trigger. And …


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