The Egyptian Mess
by Jon Harrison | Posted July 09, 2013
Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed . . .
No one should be surprised by the recent events in Egypt. Indeed, this analyst foretold them here. A people unable to rule itself or even get its living without foreign assistance is bound to wind up in a bad place, and right now Egyptians are in a very bad place indeed.
The history of Egypt is well known, so I will touch on it only briefly here. The valley of the Nile was home to one of the earliest and greatest civilizations created by man. That civilization eventually declined, and Egypt became the booty of foreign conquerors — Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the bounty of the Nile fed the Roman mob for centuries. Egypt’s population has been overwhelmingly Muslim since the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. About 10% of its people are Coptic Christians.
Egypt enjoyed brief renaissances under the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171 CE) and then in the early 19th century under Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805–1848), an able military commander who nearly brought down the decaying Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Muhammad Ali’s descendants were the nominal rulers of Egypt until 1952, though from 1882 until the end of World War II it was Great Britain that actually ran the country. In 1952 the Egyptian Army seized power, which it held until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the popular revolution of early 2011.
We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic.
Mirabeau referred to Prussia as an army with a state. That description would aptly fit modern Egypt. The Army is the ultimate arbiter of politics in Egypt. It also plays a large role in the Egyptian economy, operating businesses and farms that account for a significant portion of Egypt’s GDP. Its businesses pay no license fees or taxes, and all profits disappear “off budget” into accounts under Army control. On top of this, it receives over $1 billion per year in American military aid. Its position in the state is comparable to that of the People’s Liberation Army in China — except that its political influence is probably even greater than that exercised by the PLA. The Egyptian Army projects itself as the guardian of the state and the people, but in reality it is a semi-parasitic organism whose primary goal is self-perpetuation.
The main counterweight to the Army is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, it has survived persecution first by the British and then by its bitter rival, the Army. For decades it too has been a state within a state, operating clinics and schools generally regarded as superior to those provided by the government, and dispensing aid to widows, orphans, and others. Indeed, the social safety net created by the Brotherhood was not only tolerated but partly funded by the government, which came to see the Brotherhood’s work as a pillar of social stability. In part, the poorest of the poor in Egypt survive because the Brotherhood has been there for them.
Of course, the Brotherhood is first and foremost an Islamist organization. Its ultimate goal has been and remains the creation of an Islamic society guided by sharia law. After the revolution of 2011 and the Army’s withdrawal from direct governance, the Brotherhood sought to fill the power vacuum thus created.
The revolution of early 2011 was not instigated by the Brotherhood, but rather by Western-oriented and social network-connected young people, more secular than religious in outlook, who wished to see Egypt become something like a European social democracy. That the revolution occurred just as European social democracy was beginning to crumble is ironic but beside the point. We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic. Even American-style political economy is incomprehensible to most Egyptians.
The young revolutionaries won out in 2011 because the Army had no desire to shoot people down in the streets. Moreover, repression might have forced America to rethink its relationship with the Egyptian military, thus jeopardizing that $1 billion in lucre for the Army’s coffers. Better to stand aside, the Army calculated, and sacrifice one of its own (the dictator Mubarak) to protect its corporate interest. It could wait upon events and intervene later if necessary.
Democracy had come to Egypt. . . Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution.
After the revolution the “liberal” forces swiftly fell into disarray. The various groups differed among themselves; they lacked both organizational ability and an agreed-upon program. They frittered away the goodwill they had had garnered in the heady days immediately following Mubarak’s fall. When the interim military government relinquished power in 2012, the liberals were unprepared to govern or even mount an effective political campaign.
Enter the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the revolution the Brotherhood had downplayed its political ambitions, even claiming that it would not offer a candidate for president. But its rallies were attended by large and enthusiastic crowds, and as it saw its liberal rivals fragmenting, the prospect of power proved too alluring. With the military partially discredited by its past association with dictatorship, the Islamists (including the Brotherhood and the very conservative al-Nour Party) were free to jump into politics with both feet. In 2012 they won a majority in the new parliament and then elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency with an absolute majority of 52%. A constitution promulgated by the Islamists was ratified by 64% of Egyptian voters. Democracy had come to Egypt.
Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution; many non-Islamists refused to vote on a document that had been shaped along Islamist lines by the majority in parliament. Meanwhile, extra-constitutional steps were being taken against the judiciary and the media. This brought the secularists together again in opposition. The Brotherhood even alienated its Salafist allies in al-Nour, who found themselves marginalized as the Brotherhood’s arrogance grew.
Perhaps most important, the Brotherhood failed to grapple effectively with Egypt’s enormous economic problems. Forty percent of the population survives on the equivalent of $2 per day. Corruption is rife at all levels of society. Services as basic as electricity are often unavailable. It was certainly too much to expect that any man or party could correct these problems in a year’s time. But the Egyptian people were impatient. Many who had voted for the Islamists turned against the government when it failed to deliver basic improvements. Morsi and his supporters understandably took umbrage when the military warned them to compromise with the opposition forces. The president had been elected to a four-year term; surely he should be given that time to work out his plans for Egypt. That he had gone beyond constitutional bounds in some respects was not particularly unusual in the context of Egyptian politics. Nevertheless, when millions upon millions of Egyptians turned out across the country demanding his fall, the Army was bound to act. And the result was the recent coup.
When is a coup not a coup? When American law says that a country in which the military overthrows a democratically elected government cannot receive American aid. And so for the last few days we have witnessed the contemptible performances of the president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they wrestle to avoid the obvious. The ongoing massacre of language and truth being perpetrated by these men is prompted by the inexorable demands of empire: the Suez Canal remains a vital link for US forces deploying to the east. And the SUMED oil pipeline that crosses Egypt is vital to the transportation of Gulf oil to Europe. Already the current troubles in Egypt have caused West Texas intermediate to spike above $100 a barrel. If Egypt descends into chaos, that price could go to $140 or $150 a barrel, with terrible consequences for the American economy. So the servants of empire practice the art of obfuscation, and hope for the best.
Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.
What is the best that can come out of the current crisis in Egypt? It is important to recognize the naked truth: Egypt is not a functioning society. Its problems are insurmountable. To declare that something cannot be fixed is discordant to American ears. But Egypt is a basket case that lacks even a basket. Consider the following facts:
- Two-fifths of the population lives in great poverty, surviving on that $2 a day. Necessities are subsidized by the state; how long this can continue, given the increasing wariness of international lenders, is an open question.
- The official unemployment rate is 12.5%, but likely much higher, and youth employment is higher still.
- The country’s principal source of hard currency is drying up as tourism declines.
- Egypt would in fact be bankrupt were it not for the money it receives in the form of handouts from the US and the Gulf States, and from Suez Canal tolls. National debt is approaching 100% of GDP.
- Business is mired in bureaucracy and corruption and suffers from a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship (despite recent reforms), not to mention unfair competition from state enterprises.
- The population has tripled in the past 50 years. It is expected to double again by 2050. Self-sufficient in food as recently as 1960, Egypt now imports over 40% of its total food needs, and 60% of its wheat.
- Domestic oil production is declining while domestic consumption is increasing.
- Egypt has virtually no tradition of self-government. The Egyptian people certainly failed to exhibit any real talent for democracy in the 18 months just past.
Egypt is in reality a fellahdom; its people, aside from the small middle class, are a fellah-people. In other words, they are an undifferentiated mass, a rabble incapable of governing or even sustaining itself. As it happens, this fellah-people occupies a strategic piece of real estate; therefore it will continue to receive enough in handouts from outsiders to keep starvation at bay. Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. Left to its own devices, it would undergo cataclysms that would probably kill millions. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.
The principal actors in Egypt remain the Army and the Islamists. It should be noted that on July 6 the al-Nour party imposed a veto upon the appointment of the liberal, pro-Western Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister. Nevertheless, the Army, by drawing the secularists to its side, can guarantee continued support from the West. But if Western support should end — the result perhaps of a future crisis in the West itself — then the Islamists might again come out on top. The cry of “Islam is the answer” could resonate once more with the poor and disenfranchised. A descent into religious fanaticism would likely follow. What sort of Egypt would finally emerge is anybody’s guess.
I don’t pretend to know precisely what “solution” will be found for the present, short-term crisis. A patched-up one, no doubt, assuming civil war is avoided. But the long-term trend is clear. There is no way out for Egypt as it is presently constituted.
Jon Harrison is a contributing editor of Liberty.
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