Interfering in Egypt III

Today’s raid on various NGO and democracy promotion groups is notable for what it left out : any organization that receives money form Qatar or Saudi Arabia. These two rivals are actively funding the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Unlike the West, they do not believe in transparency, and their efforts are not channeled through any easily identifiable organizations.

The raid on the NGO offices, the selection of the specific organizations, and the manner in which the raid was conducted are all very disturbing. It indicates a twitchy and ham-fisted military.  It is part and parcel of the general incompetence displayed by SCAF since they were entrusted with executive power. It is tempting to see the raid as ominous and part of a larger plot. But it is useless in engage in any guessing about SCAF and its purposes.

It is perhaps more productive to identify why we are at this point. The funding of the MB & the Salafis is via channels provided by Egyptian expatriates, essentially doing an end-run around any charge that they are “foreign hands”. Xenophobia and paranoia still tinge much of Egyptian politics. Of course, expatriate Egyptians in the West can attempt similar feats to assist nascent democratic and liberal forces. Two factors stand in the way. First,  the West is far more attractive as a permanent home earning the loyalty of expatriates and therefore weakening the link to Egypt, especially since the general thugishness of various opposing forces extracts a high price for involvement. Second, most Western countries extend citizenship to emigrants and emigres, which is not the case in the Gulf countries. This further weakens the connection to Egypt, as the emigrant population is far more integrated into Western society and far more appreciative of the liberty accorded it.

These are the unvarnished facts.

The New Mamelukes & the MB

European style feudalism was introduced to Egypt by the Mamelukes in the 14th century. Mameluke rulers began to give plots of land to their trusted generals in exchange for loyalty in dynastic struggles  and availability in warfare. This system continued for nearly 200 years until the Ottoman occupation of Egypt, where all land nominally belonged to the Ottoman Sultan.  In fact, the Mamelukes pretty much continued in their previous ways.  The end of medieval feudalism in Egypt came in the early 19th century with the reign of Muhammad Ali. By eliminating the Mamelukes and confiscating their lands he was able to move Egypt along the trajectory previously seen in Europe, where feudalism gave way to strong central Monarchs ( and subsequently free markets in many countries).  Muhammad Ali still needed an army to satisfy his imperial ambitions, and he looked for a model in early Prussian history, a conscript army with aristocratic and mercenary officers. Many of the mercenary officers were in fact European.

Egypt in the 19th century was experiencing a radical shortening of the European experience with armies. It took Europe 400 years to move from feudalism to aristocratic and mercenary armies and then to true national armies, with a native officer corps. Egypt, in emulating the west, shortened that period to less than 80 years. The Urabi revolution of the early 1880’s was the dawn of the native officer corps. In all likelihood had Urabi succeeded, Egypt would have moved toward a military dictatorship under the nominal monarchy (witness Japan’s situation at the same time). In fact, foreign interference culminating with the British expedition of 1882 ended Urabi’s short revolution. Egypt’s army remained small and weak and the imperial British power guaranteed Egyptian borders while remaining an effective ruling force. This could not last, and in fact did not last. The early 1930’s saw a return of the native officer corps, many of whose members formed the “Free Officers” group that overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Egypt was back again on the path of a military dictatorship.

Early in Nasser’s term he faced the dilemma of how to retain Army power while preventing future coups. The 1952 coup was a close thing, and it could have easily failed. That must have figured in Nasser’s calculations. He set about coup-proofing his regime by both threats and bribes.The army command was structured to foil any coup in the style of coups common in Syria and Iraq. It was dangerous to be a disloyal officer, especially if you were competent as well.  He also made being a loyal officer an attractive career choice. These two directions had fateful consequences.

First, the army never promoted based on quality, and as a result the three wars under Nasser were incompetently managed. The 1956 Suez expedition showed the army to be weak, but that was papered over by the intervention of the US and the humiliation of England and France.  The Yemen war as a small Vietnam, and Nasser increased internal repression to mute an criticism of the army. It was the 1967 debacle that forced him to resign (for a few hours) and then purge the army of his cronies. The 1973 war restored status quo ante , and Egypt was back again on the same road.

Second the policy of favoring army officers led to more and more economic activities falling under the military or former military officers. The wave of nationalizations in the early 1960’s were in part an attempt to create economic opportunities for the army through leadership of public sector enterprises. This was not a sustainable policy, and in many ways the subsequent gyrations of economic policies under Sadat and Mubarak were attempts at course corrections without altering the basic policy.

What Nasser had done was, in effect, recreate the old Mameluke order. The army officers have become the new Mamelukes. It was a retrograde policy that was to retard Egypt’s economic and social progress by decades, if not centuries. For example, South Korea, which started out as a traditional military dictatorship,  outgrew Egypt in the 1960-2000 decades by a factor of 20.  This was primarily because the military did not intervene in the economy in the same manner and more-or-less free market policies were put into effect. Also, South Korea progressed in a more normal fashion politically into a functioning democracy (in its own fashion).

Egypt has now arrived at a fork in the road. Either the “New Mameluke” policy will be discarded and Egypt can resume a natural course of social and economic progress or the policy will be upheld and strengthened resulting in whole scale retardation of Egyptian life. That choice will need to be made by the newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood. It is worth remembering that the old Mamelukes retained their power through a religious alliance that justified their rule. It was an alliance with the narrowest and most regressive of religious forces. That is why the Mameluke period was marked by severe and continuing oppression of the Copts. In fact, many of the current wild Salafi ideas are a replay of Mameluke policies of making Copts second class citizens and terrorizing them through legal means (forbidding church building, etc) and mob rule ( regular pogroms against the Copts, especially in rural areas).

The hinge at the moment is the MB. They need to make a choice: would they support the army in exchange for quick power and the free hand to enforce their social policies, or would they insist on a civilian government and possibly risk a repeat of 1954, when Nasser lashed out at them and removed most of their army sympathizers. This is why the MB has often put out conflicted statements about the way forward with respect to the army’s role.

This is a fateful time for Egypt. External civil forces can make a huge difference. This is not 1954, or even 1977, where much can happen without the world’s knowledge or pressure. The Egyptian diaspora can also play a role by strengthening the hand of those favoring “normal development”, through specific economic policies and political pressures to exclude the army from a return to a failed policy.

In the Country of Women

The irreplaceable Salah Jahin had a stable of characters for his sharp cartoons. One biting pair was a husband and wife couple dubbed “Samsoon wa Zaleellah”, a play on the Biblical Samson and Delilah as well as on the colloquial Egyptian word for a beaten-down servant (Zaleel). The man is perpetually in a tank top covering his ample girth, his head balding with an unruly mop of hair. The woman is always disheveled in a house dress.  The man usually makes idiotic and pompous pronouncements and the woman always answers in a servile but clear and biting way.

The situation for women in Egypt has not improved since the death of Jahin a quarter century ago. One of the fables making the rounds lately is that Mubarak never really wanted his son to follow him, it was his wife Suzanne that pushed him into it. This is a convenient story for the Generals who served Mubarak for over 2 decades but turned against him when it seemed that Gamal was a shoe-in.  The great Baba they served was never that wrong, it is that witch of a wife that did it. To the potent brew of misogyny, the observation that Suzanne is “half-Egyptian” adds a strong after-kick of Xenophobia.  Almost identical charges were whispered against Sadat’s wife. Nasser’s wife (who was also “half-Egyptian”) was spared the wagging tongues. It is no wonder that one of the items that came up in the discussion about the new constitution was that the President’s wife needs to be “fully” Egyptian.

There is no Intrade for Egyptian politics and societal changes. If there were, I would bet massively on a change coming from the women’s direction. Egyptian will never be fully free, nor fully functional, till this tetchy patriarchy meets its end. It may take decades though.


The Egyptian Army needs to be rescued from the incompetence of its generals.

The year 2011 will be a seminal and clarifying date for the Egyptian Army. If 1952 marked the rise of the Army as a quasi-monarchical ultimate source of power and legitimacy, then 1967 is the year the Army was laid low by the incompetence of its leadership, chosen more for loyalty than capability. The summer of 1967 is when officers could not wear their uniforms in public. The Army purged its leadership of Nasser’s hacks and redeemed itself, in a limited way, in the 1973 war. 2011 is the year the Army will choose the fork in the road : rule Egypt openly or retreat from politics entirely. The possibility that the Army will have invisible power is made remote by incompetence of SCAF in managing the post-Mubarak transition. 2011 is 1967 replayed, not on the battlefield but on the streets.

It should be emphasized : the generals are not helping the Army as an institution nor the lower rank-and-file officers. To place the Army in the street with no clear objective or strategy beyond just showing up and engaging in a give-and-take with an unruly bunch of civilians is extraordinarily negligent. It is a level of negligence that recalls the strategy of Abdel Hakim Amer who packed most of Egypt’s Army along the border with Israel without so much as a half-baked plan.

The Egyptian Army needs to be rescued from the incompetence of its generals. It is up to the Egyptians to do that. It is time to stop going after the poor conscript in the street and target peacefully  his superior who left him there without adequate orders.

Interfering in Egypt II

Alaa Al-aswany recently said that overthrowing Mubarak was too easy to be true. Many have constantly batted away at the fears that the January revolution was not as pure as it seemed.

The recent events can not possibly make us calmer. The demonstrators in front of the cabinet building were anything but peaceful. They were clearly infiltrated by more than a few “bad elements”, hooligans looking for a bit of fun, youth at bay with nothing better to do. They stained the honor of the well-meaning protesters.  Even those who are “well meaning” have failed to articulate a clear agenda or proceed in a coherent fashion to build a country.

If the youth were at  fault, the adults were much worse. The Army commanders are inept and heavy handed. Their prevarications and transparent lies make one wonder how they would do in warfare where clarity and decisiveness are essential. The troops appeared at moments to be nothing more than an unruly mob, raining rocks and bodily fluids on the protesters. The political class is irrelevant. Some bleated their concern. Others kept silent, their snouts sniffing the wind for a clue. The biggest winners of the recent poll, the Muslim Brotherhood, are, as usual, looking out for their interests and are devoid of any moral backbone. They may be very religious, but they are hardly upright. At least the Salafis, to their credit, came out clearly against the boneheaded idea that clearing a public space of demonstrators is done by live ammo. So here we are at the edge of the cliff.

Yesterday’s news conference by General Emara made it very clear: the gloves are off. He posed a choice : heavy-handed tactics by the Army or chaos. The problem is that Egypt is likely to get both.

This will get worse unless people make it get better. Foreign interference is always a bad idea in Egypt. Egypt is a proud under-achiever. But the country is in disarray, brutalized by 60 years of inept military dominance and 30 years of government by a wily dullard.  The only possible salvation must come from the Egyptian Diaspora in the West. It is large (nearly two million in the US, Europe and Australia), possessed of relative wealth and education, ecumenical (both Muslim and Copt), and perhaps still carrying the memory of an older and gentler Egypt. The question is whether they can organize and  navigate the treacherous Western politics. Many Western politicians will try to use the predicament of Egypt to drive home crude ideological points. An even handed approach is both necessary and difficult. Some of the self-proclaimed leaders are suspect. The best people are often quiet, not wishing to be involved in the rough and tumble. One can take heart in the efforts of people like Ahmed Zwail to tackle the perennial problems of degraded education and poor infrastructure. These are worthwhile long term efforts, but can they survive the scorching of short term problems?

Purposeful leadership is awaited and hopefully it will emerge in time.


The burning of the Egyptian Scientific Institute Library is a sad event.  First and foremost we should recognize that many civilians rushed into the dangerous situation to save the irreplaceable books and manuscripts. These men and women should be the pride of Egypt. The library itself, with books dating back to the Napoleonic expedition, represents a critical chapter in Egypt’s modern history.

Conflagrations have a long history in Egypt. Often they mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. Like rapids in a river they rudely interrupt the placid flow of history to mark a boundary. As always, the causes are murky, the accounts conflicted, and there maybe more than one hand involved in the Arson

It would take too long to enumerate all such conflagrations.  The most famous, of course, is the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It is an event that marked the end of the era of pagan learning, and in effect made Egypt firmly Christian and detached it from the Mediterranean-European world for the next 15 centuries.

Other, more recent fires, include the Cairo fire of January 1952, which in hindsight marked the end of Egypt’s attempt to be a liberal constitutional monarchy, and inaugurated an era of military-backed strongmen in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. The burning of the Cairo Opera House in 1971 ended the era of Cosmopolitan Cairo that started a century earlier with the opening of the Suez canal. The construction of the Opera House was to mark the occasion (and perform Aida). From 1971 onward, the elegant Cairo of black-and-white photographs was rapidly fading.  The death of many men and women of letters in the subsequent few years did not help. Suspicions still center on the fire as an intentional arson in a real estate scheme. If so, it is then the opening volley in the Sadat-Mubarak era of corruption and cronyism.

Forty years hence, we have this fire. As with all the others, the causes and arsonists may never be known. If it is the demonstrators, then they are the youth we have never educated or cared for. If it is the Army or the Police, then it is the corrupt state that mismanaged such vital institutions. But no matter, a new era is dawning. What will it be, we do not yet know. It is in our power though to mold it.


The returns of the first round of election indicate that Fayoum went heavily for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. Some may recall the name of this province from the famous mummy portraits.

Egyptians, just prior to the age of Christianity, painted their faces in Hellenic style on their very Egyptian mummies. Today’s Salafis, with their bearded faces in the style of the narrow and retrograde sects of the Arabian Peninsula, seem to be a burlesque echo of that era. If Egyptians of the first century A.D. strove to imitate the Hellenic overlords as a gesture to “modernity”, the Salafis seek to imitate the Arab colonizers as a gesture to “authenticity”.


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