Thoughts on Egypt

I am far from an expert on Egypt. I only began studying the Middle East a couple of years ago, and my countries of interest are Syria and the UAE. So while I’ve read a few things about Egypt prior to the current protests, I’m not claiming my thoughts are of special insight or interest–rather, I think the issue is of special interest, and so I invite others to join me in thinking about Egypt. Your thoughts in addition to or in rebuttal of mine are invited.

1. My initial thought about the protests was that I would be a lot happier if Egypt hadn’t just recently had a wave of anti-Christian violence. Replacing Mubarak with an Islamic state would not be a good outcome. But of course Egypt also had a stunningly large group of Muslims act as human shields for Christian churches, and it seems that the leaders–or at least instigators–of these protests are predominantly nominally Muslim secularists, and a substantial number of Coptic Christians are joining them. That makes me considerably less pessimistic about what might be the consequences if the protests are ultimately successful.

2. We’re far from knowing the outcome. The protesters are explicitly claiming to have been inspired by the “successful” protests of Tunisia, but of course we don’t know the ultimate outcome in Tunisia yet.

3. So far the military is refusing to intervene and military leaders have stated that the protesters demands are legitimate. Keeping the military on the sidelines is of key importance–whether they crush the protests or overthrow the government, their involvement in anything but preventing outright violence would be a bad step. Is the military taking a principled stance, or are they wary of offending the U.S., a crucial supporter for them, financially, technologically, and for training? What happens if Mubarak sacks, or tries to, the military leadership to replace them with hardliners?

4. Israel’s nervous–big surprise. They should be. While a democratic secular government in Egypt could potentially be the best for Israel, they currently have a pretty stable relationship with Egypt, including a successful 30 year old peace agreement. Israel hasn’t survived by hoping changes work to their advantage–they want the certainty of stability.

5. The U.S. isn’t helping by trying to back Mohammed ElBaradei. We can encourage peaceful change and democracy without trying to impose a leader on another country–that kind of mucking about with Muslim countries has not yet served our long-term interests. Obama and Clinton are not acting any worse than prior presidents would have in this situation, but they’re not acting noticeably better, either.

6. If Tunisia and Egypt develop relatively stable democratic regimes, it will be a perfect mockery of George W. Bush’s claim that we could forcibly bring democracy to Iraq and have it become the first domino in a democratic cascade. Neither Tunisians nor Egyptians are giving any indication that Iraq’s situation has been their inspiration. A few years back a friend of mind defended the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it has to come from outside. I was persuaded then that he was wrong, and events since have done nothing to change my mind.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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10 Responses to Thoughts on Egypt

  1. AMW says:

    Thoughts on:

    1. I assumed that the Coptic (and sympathetic Muslim) protests were part of what sparked more general protests. Am I way off on this?

    2. We don’t know the outcome, but I can’t help feeling just a bit excited. This sort of public upheaval against a dictator/strongman is (to my knowledge) almost unknown on the Arab Street. And where it has happened (e.g. Kurds and Shiites under Saddam) it has been brutally put down in the past. Now we have a dictator overthrown in Tunisia, another hanging by a thread in Egypt, and the King of Jordan making some preemptive moves at reform to keep himself out of a grand trifecta. I love it! Now I know how so many Americans felt at the outset of the French Revolution. I just hope these Arab revolutions don’t turn out the same way.

    3. I’d like it if the military’s stance was principled. But if it’s calculated on fears of American disapproval and removal of funding, that’s functionally equivalent, at least for the near term.

    4. I don’t want to see hard-line Hezbollah types running the show in Cairo. But if a reasonably stable, popularly supported, relatively non-corrupt government emerges in Egypt that is more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, I think that will be a good thing for the peace process. Israel needs some counterparts that aren’t either a) in full, blind support of them or b) slavering to push them into the sea.

    5. It seems to me the best American strategy is to do all of its work behind the scenes. Let Mubarak know things need to change and tell the military that if there are any shenanigans they can kiss (a big chunk of) their budget goodbye. Make sure all of the public statements are of the plain vanilla, we-love-democracy-and-hope-Egypt-can-work-it-out-peacefully variety.

    6. Yes, but that’s not how Bush’s supporters will spin it, more’s the pity. Still, their unjustified self-congratulation will be bearable if the reforms in Tunisia and Egypt turn out to be meaningful, enduring, and (relatively) bloodless.

  2. James Hanley says:

    Re: point 1.

    I haven’t heard that those human shield events are being attributed as sparks for these protests, but I have a hard time believing that they didn’t at least demonstrate to the public the power they held in their hands when they worked together across sectarian lines. I envision a conversation something like,

    “Hey, look what happened in Tunisia, wish we could do that here.”

    “Well, you know, we did all come together over the attacks on the Copts….”

    “Yeah, that worked really well, maybe we can pull a Tunisia here.”

    Which is a long way of saying I tend to agree with you, with some further specifications.

  3. Scott Hanley says:

    From EA WorldView:

    1930 GMT: But the really important news this evening is that the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo have organised a football tournament with the Army.

    From what I gather, the Army’s response is not just fear of American disapproval, but that they feel invested in their public reputation as an institution that is far more professional and concerned for the people than the police are. If that’s the case, then an Army that took over the leadership while still taking that reputation seriously would be a better government than they have, and perhaps even better than popular elections might yield (somewhere I read a comment to the effect that Egyptians need a functioning Bill of Rights more than they need elections by themselves).

    I really want to be optimistic about this, but I know that revolutions often disappoint. Americans tend to be too optimistic about them, because ours turned out reasonably well. I can see a new government correcting the police abuse that angers so many Egyptians; I’m not sure anyone has the power to satisfy the unemployed college graduates who are providing much of the energy.

  4. James Hanley says:

    Re: Scott’s comment about the army. A friend of mine asked me last night if in Egypt people chose the military as a career path in preference to the police because it was more respectable and less corrupt. I don’t know the answer to that, but what Scott writes would lend credence to the idea.

    Let’s just hope the game doesn’t turn into a soccer riot!

  5. AMW says:

    I really want to be optimistic about this, but I know that revolutions often disappoint. Americans tend to be too optimistic about them, because ours turned out reasonably well.

    I can think of two reasons why the Egyptian revolution would fall closer to the American end of the spectrum. First, the main aim seems to be the overthrowing of an existing, tyrannical order, rather than the implementation of a well-defined, idealist order, as happened in France, Russia, Cambodia, China, Cuba etc. Second, there doesn’t seem to be a single arbiter of power among the protesters. El Baradei is the closest thing to that one can point to, and he appears to have been pushed into the position more than jumping into it.

    Let’s just hope the game doesn’t turn into a soccer riot!

    Not to worry: most Europeans have fled the country.

  6. AMW says:

    Bryan Caplan has some sobering thoughts of a general nature on revolution. For now, however, I’m sticking by my optimism.

  7. A Bear says:

    I’ve seen letters written in earnest by Iranians that experienced the Islamic Revolution in Iran, addressed to the Egyptian people to avoid the mistakes they had made. Best of luck to the Egyptian people, hopefully they won’t replace a tyrant with a many headed monster.

  8. Matty says:

    It now looks like the army are backing Mubaraks compromise offer of not standing in September’s elections. How will this apparent decision in favour of one outcome affect the attitude of the protestors who previously saw the military as either neutral or potential allies?

  9. AMW says:

    I heard on the news today that things are turning/have turned violent in Tahrir Square.

    Crap.

  10. AMW says:

    After reading additional reports, it seems as if the violence is due to Mubarak sending in thugs and police in street clothes to intimidate the anti-regime protesters. To me, that bodes better for the eventual outcome than I had been worried about, because it means the violence isn’t just the anti-regime protesters getting impatient and starting shenanigans. Still, the government incitement to violence may cause things to spin out of control.

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