Did a Saudi Ex Machina Save Egypt?

UPDATE: At National Review, Daniel Pipes reads the military takeover as a “palace coup” by military leaders who unloaded the unwanted Mubarak dynasty and used the Tahrir Square protesters as well as the Islamists to consolidate their own power. Daniel’s take is not inconsistent with the reading below. I hope he’s right, and that the chances for an Islamist takeover are narrower than I feared. But I am still concerned about the possible disintegration of the Egyptian economy and the growth of Muslim Brotherhood power on the street.

Saudi Arabia just may have pulled America’s chestnuts out of the fire.

Just before Egypt’s military restored its power earlier this month, Saudi Arabia gave the beleaguered country just enough aid to keep the economy afloat for the time being. On June 2, the Saudis put $1 billion into Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves and bought $500 million in Egyptian government bonds on June 4. And on June 8, the Saudis announced that Egypt could use a $750 million credit line to import fuel “based on the severe oil-products shortage faced by Egypt,” according to an emailed statement from the Saudi Embassy in Cairo.

These gifts are droplets compared to Egypt’s $20 billion hemorrhage of foreign exchange reserves since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, but of critical importance. As the Saudi statement noted, a severe shortage of diesel oil threatened, in turn, to reduce food supplies, and spot shortages of bread were reported in May. The Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of critical shortages to expand its power on the Egyptian street, as I reported in the Asia Times on May 1st (“The horror and the pita”). Saudi aid gives critical leverage and credibility to the military. On June 16,  Egypt’s military ordered the dissolution of parliament after the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court declared invalid the election that returned a three-quarters majority of Islamists.

The Saudi press meanwhile supported the military’s candidate in last weekend’s presidential elections. “In a series of editorials published over the past few weeks, a clear bias can be discerned for Ahmed Shafiq, a secular independent and former Mubarak-era prime minister. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, is presented by Saudi opinion makers as a menace to Egypt’s civil character and political stability,” Elhanan Miller reported on June 17 in the Times of Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood competes with the Saudi royal family, offering a Leninist vanguard party model of Islamist leadership in opposition to the corrupt Saudi monarchy. Violent demonstrations against Saudi installations in Egypt nearly collapsed Egyptian-Saudi relations in April, as I reported at the time:

Egypt’s national tragedy took a turn towards farce April 27, when Saudi Arabia closed its embassy and several consulates after demonstrations that “threaten the security and safety of Saudi and Egyptian employees, raising hostile slogans and violating the inviolability and sovereignty”, according to a Saudi statement. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States were supposed to anchor an international aid package that will forestall a disorderly financial crisis.

With a critical fuel shortage cutting into food supplies and essential services, Egyptians already have a foretaste of chaos. The two-for-a-penny pita, the subsidized flat bread that provides much of the caloric intake for the half of Egypt’s population living on less than $2 a day, is at risk.

Fortunately for the West, Egypt’s military appears to have taken matters in hand with Saudi support, forestalling the triumph of militant Islamism in the Arab world’s most populous country, at least for the moment. Call it the triumph of realism. This is as good as it gets in the Arab world. Egyptians have been spared (so far) the misery of their former partners in the United Arab Republic of 1958-1961, which briefly merged the two countries. With Saudi largess, they might be spared starvation for the time being.

There are still democracy activists on Tahrir Square wondering where their revolution went, calling for a million-man march against the military’s “coup.” But the punditeska that hailed the Arab Spring as the best thing since the American founding is thunderously silent. Where is the snow job of yesteryear? The punditeska’s infatuation with the Arab Spring ran across the whole political spectrum, from Tom Friedman at the New York Times to Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard. When it came to the crunch, the “tech-savvy activists” of Tahrir Square turned out to be “benzine bubbles floating atop the viscous Nile mud,” as I called them in February 2011. Both the Facebook revolution and the Facebook IPO since have gone pear-shaped, and what is left is the mud of Egyptian society: the military against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The collective sigh of relief is audible. The prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood regime controlling Egypt’s parliament as well as the presidency was too horrible to contemplate, especially in light of the unending horror in Syria. Democracy is betrayed by collusion of Egypt’s old regime and one of the world’s nastiest regimes, but the punditeska is too pleased to protest. Not even Tom Friedman wants the Muslim Brothers to get control of the Egyptian state. For the moment, Egyptians have Saudi Arabia to thank for their penny-a-loaf pita ration, and the hand the military had to kiss in order to get it. And that is immeasurably better than the alternative.