Egypt Falls Back on the Military

Two years after the collapse of Egypt's sixty years of military rule, the largest Arab country has come full circle. Today's army ultimatum to the Muslim Brotherhood government to work out terms with the protesting opposition puts a military veto on any political solution to emerge from the present crisis, and raises the prospect of a return to actual military rule. The population has had enough. Beans (not to mention animal protein) have been priced out of the budget of the poorer half of Egypt's citizens for weeks, and the country is nearly out of fuel -- which means, in the middle of the wheat harvest, nearly out of bread. There isn't much to hope for here, but there are best and worst case scenarios.

The worst case scenario is the status quo: chaos in politics, violence in the streets, complete cessation of tourism, and economic breakdown. This is not an economy with a lot of buffer. Nearly a fifth of Egyptians were suffering from malnutrition when the World Health Organization surveyed the country in 2011. WFP estimates that two of five Egyptian adults are mentally and physically "stunted" by inadequate diet. The slow starvation of Egyptians under successive military regimes is gradually turning into actual hunger.

Sadly, military government probably is the best case scenario.

There is only one  reason the military might do a better job than the Muslim Brotherhood or the liberal opposition, and that is because Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (besides tiny Qatar) might decide to provide funding for a military regime that suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi regime rightly fears as a competitor to its medieval form of monarchy. That is why Saudi aid to Egypt has been insignificant, while tiny Qatar has committed $5 billion--nearly a fifth of its total foreign exchange reserves--to keep Egypt afloat during the past year.

Egypt needs about $20 billion a year in external subsidies; a smaller amount would forestall the worst effects of the economic crisis. With $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country with the resources to give Egypt help on the scale it requires. But the Saudis will not subsidize their own prospective executioners. The Muslim Brotherhood is a modern totalitarian political party; next to the Saudi royal family, it looks like a meritocracy. For ambitious Saudis not born into the ruling family, it offers an attractive alternative.

This leaves the Obama administration in a bind. Obama and his appointees backed the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt from the beginning, and as late as last week urged moderation and dialogue on the opposition, which means supporting the status quo. This was not only inimical to American interests but downright stupid. Even Islamists have to eat, and the Muslim Brotherhood had no hope forestalling economic collapse.

Obama is all talk and no money, though: the administration cannot squeeze meaningful sums out of Congress for Egyptian aid. The only prospective rescuer with deep enough pockets to keep Egypt from disintegrating is Saudi Arabia, and Saudis almost certainly would make the suppression of the Brotherhood a condition for aid. Whether the Saudis will do so remains a matter of pure speculation. Unlike Turkey, whose huge foreign trade deficit the Saudis have helped cover with tens of billions of dollars of short-term loans, Egypt is no help against Iran, the Saudis' major strategic worry. But the math says that this is the only scenario that would avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the short term. If the Obama administration cared about the condition of the Egyptian people, it would throw the Muslim Brotherhood under the bus and try its best to broker such a deal.