The Incompetent State

The crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai is now causing widespread damage to the tourism industry in Egypt, estimated to bring in 6-8 Billion USD annually. There is even talk of a “collapsing state” due to this loss. To put things in perspective, there are over 100 US companies whose net profits exceed that of Egypt’s tourism industry. This is a frightening picture of the fragility of the Egyptian state. Lost in all the noise and opinionating, based mostly on pre-conceived biases, is a discussion of how Egypt got to this sorry state.

Tourism, or at the least the current Egyptian version of it, is not a happy industry. A few magnates, owners of resorts and associated businesses, do well. The majority of workers are “service industry” types; literally people who cook, clean, and serve the tourists sunning themselves on the beaches. For a country to base half its foreign earnings on this industry is a humiliating and profoundly damaging state. This humiliation, rarely acknowledged in the open due to the overly sensitive Egyptian psyche, is at the root of what seems to be national madness. A sense of injury and hurt aimed at the world in general, and at any particular critic that dares point out problems that Egyptians themselves have identified. This should be a moment of reflection for Egypt. The loss of tourism revenue threatens the state because Egypt imports twice as much as it exports, and relies on food imports to feed its burgeoning population. To correct this state, it is important to identify and correct its root causes.

The country as a whole suffers from poor education, low social entrepreneurship and rapidly increasing population. These problems reflect badly on the system that Egyptians have constructed to misgovern them since 1954, when the first “native” state took over. We do not need to dive into post-colonial mumbo jumbo to discuss this issue. Many countries around the world have threaded the development needle, evolving from a backward state to advancing and prosperous development. Often this is done under the watchful eye of enlightened authoritarian systems, which eventually give way to better and more liberal governance, once the population hits a magic level of GDP and Middle Class prosperity. The trouble with Egyptian authoritarianism is that it has been largely incompetent at economics, and often too weak to face a population fond of religious orthodoxy and bent on social conservatism. To escape the current vicious economic cycle, there will need to be major investment in Egypt, probably by many outside actors. The reason to do so is simple. No one wants a failed state on the Nile, astride Africa, Asia and Europe. But such investments must be pre-conditioned on major changes in public policies that favor investments and encourage small and medium entrepreneurs, and end the back-scratching cronyism of large businessmen getting preferential treatment from the state, or the Army. Such conditions will undoubtedly raise Egyptian hackles; as the hyper-nationalism seems rampant today. But many Egyptians are waking up to the outline of the disaster looming ahead. As the adage goes, an impending disaster can focus the mind.

It is pointless to recommend “democratic reforms” on Egypt today. They will not come, and any democracy that might conceivably emerge today will be fragile, prone to demagoguery, and in the grotesque language favored by many think tankers “illiberal”. To have a democratic state one must start with an actual state. Sadly, the best that can be recommended to Egypt today is capable and competent authoritarianism, which the current version is not. Many are asking that relations and aid to Egypt be predicated on ending its “repressive” policies. This observer argues that aid and relations be predicated on the quality of managers and the policies in place. In the end, native prosperity is more likely to bring social and political freedom than the well-intentioned urgings of outsiders.

— Maged Atiya


The Kosygin Tactic

The suspension of Russian flights to Egypt will likely decimate tourism in the Red Sea. So why did Putin, who is idolized by many in Egypt, make that decision? It is possible that he is concerned about Russian lives, put at risk by lax airport security. It would be a welcome change from his heretofore attitude toward lives, both Russian and non-Russian. More likely Putin is using the crash of the Russian airliner as pretext to wrest something out of Egypt, as always for his gain. As a man well versed in Soviet history he must know something about the “Kosygin tactic”. The Soviet Union desired a naval base in Alexandria. From the beginning of the Yemen war in 1962 to the final departure of advisors in 1972 the man in charge of the policy, Alexei Kosygin, alternately provided aid and withheld it to coerce Nasser into providing the base. Nasser, and his fellow Free Officers, would not relent, if only because they built their reputation on keeping Egypt out of foreign alliances and keeping foreign bases out of Egypt. For that decade the Soviet Union approximated a frustrated High Schooler ineptly trying to unhook the well-clasped ample Egyptian bra. In the end it was an unlikely American, Henry Kissinger, who pulled a “Kosygin” on Kosygin, and cemented a relationship, now fraying. (Kosygin never recovered from that humiliation). Putin clearly wants something and is trying to coerce it out of Egypt. Perhaps it is mere influence, or something more substantial such as assistance with the various Middle Eastern escapades he is involved in.

Egypt today is a country at the end of its tether (more on that in a separate post). Like the proverbial animal in that pathetic situation it could lash out and act in an unpredictable fashion. But this denouement is an opportunity for the country to start anew and chart a better path. It is 1876 all over again in Egypt, but this time without either the rapacious European bankers or Lord Cromer. It is the end of the 1954 Nasser state (as 1876 was the end of the Muhammad Ali state). That state has reached a dead-end, where it can no longer sweet talk or coerce the citizens, and where it offers no vision beyond plodding along. Egypt needs an overhaul and reorganization of the state; its legitimacy and obligations to the citizens, defences, finances, administrative structures and relations with the region and the world. One suspects that many in power know that, but are unable to break the tether that binds them to the post of the 1954 state, and keeps the country just barely away from the peace and prosperity it desires. President Sisi expressed effusive gratitude to the US in September, both to the English and Arabic press. But the US kept a lofty distance, perhaps because it is no longer in a mood of “nation building and democratization”. Little more than a decade ago the US spent a Trillion Dollars and thousands of lives trying to build a democracy in so-called Iraq; a task as fanciful as growing Cranberries in the Sahara. With collapsing states all over the region the US is in no mood for a second go. That is a costly mistake. There are better ways to build nations than Paul Bremer and his merry crew of Heritage conservatives (hint – it involves capable natives). There are better ways a great power can assert its influence beyond raw military might (perhaps advice can be sought from the sage of Sutton Place, who pulled the first Kosygin). The US can finally cash in, on the cheap, on the bet it has so expensively made and now discarded. With Egypt almost entirely alone and friendless, the US can step in with a package of recommended administrative reforms and assistance to rebuild the shambling state and create a native example of what can work in the region. Egypt has been in recent times a regional example or a cautionary tale. It is unlikely that counter-productive Egyptian pride will accept a Cromer redux, so the manner of assistance must be clothed in acceptable forms. Several times in the recent months Egyptian officials asked for such “assistance” from Egyptians abroad, and even created a special ministry for “immigration”, headed by a woman. The feelers are all there, as they were in 1973. A great power should, like a real estate speculator, know when to step into a troubled neighborhood and buy on the cheap. Putin has spent several years tweaking the US in the Ukraine and Syria. It would be sweet to send him chasing his head, bare-chested, in the one place likely to matter greatly in the Middle East. And, as an added bonus, finally figure out a US policy in the region away from the failures and frustrations of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the slowly unfolding debacle of either embracing the Saudi monarchy or dancing with the Iranian Mullahs. But two critical questions remain; is the US in a mood to truly affect the Middle East for a better long term outcome, and does it have the diplomatic and cultural skills to do so?

— Maged Atiya

 


The Idiot State

Einstein defined madness as repeating identical actions expecting different results. He also could have defined idiocy as the allocation of scarce resources toward irrelevant goals. The region around Egypt is rife with horrors born from the collapse of ineffective states. Respect by the citizens is central to an effective state. No one, however, respects an idiot. There is plenty of evidence that the state in Egypt is devolving to idiocy, especially since the events of January 2011. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. And the state of idiocy is not new.

When Nasser succeeded to the post of Prime Minister, then President, in 1954 he wanted to beautify the banks of the Nile near downtown Cairo, building a Corniche accessible to the common people; a laudable goal. Impatient with state bureaucracy, he trusted the task to a Free Officer, Abdel Latif Boghdadi. Two decades later, more of that story would emerge in a Church basement in the US through the words of an Egyptian immigrant. He was a fast rising young civil engineer when the project was proposed. He reviewed the plans and put a hold on granting the necessary permits. He had noticed the lack of proper drainage. His actions earned him the anger of Boghdadi, but he ultimately prevailed. The Corniche remained a lovely river walk well into the 1980s. The man’s career, however, suffered irreparably, ultimately causing his immigration. The recent floods in Alexandria are an eerie echo of those events. Pell Mell development drowned the city in rain due to improper drainage. A man who knows the city well commented that most of its state employees are “hapless Hanbalis, more worried about prayer schedules than drainage pipes”. Even worse, the young, dynamic, civilian and progressive governor, who had warned of this potential problem, was sacked. Egypt’s “Peter Principle” goes something like this “every capable man or woman will fall to the level of their worst expectations”.

Idiocy is evident in how mistakes are handled. The army incorrectly targets a convoy of tourists, killing a dozen, including Mexican nationals. This is no unusual event in the annals of counter-terrorism. The US Army, the best in the world, has done worse, including bombing a hospital in Afghanistan a few weeks after that event in Egypt. The idiot state flails for excuses and attempts to deflect blame through transparent lies. The intelligent state assumes responsibility and launches credible investigations to rectify the process and reduce future errors.

Idiocy is also evident in the manner by which the state defends itself against those who seek its destruction. Much effort is placed going after the lesser threats, wasting resources and credibility that should be invested countering more serious ones. When a judge denies medical treatment to a tearful young woman under administrative detention, he lessens himself and the system he serves. The state can not gain respect while appearing spiteful and petulant. Similarly, the prosecution of an American citizen, one Mohammad Soltan, was a classic case of idiocy. The young man is a clueless naif and unfortunate scion of bigotry. He bumbled into peripheral participation in what some called the “Rab’aa PR Project”, a euphemism for sectarian incitement. The smart response would be to deport the young man to obscurity in Rustbelt USA. Instead, the idiot state detained him and then released him, to wide acclaim by pundits and politicians in the West. They effectively made him the unlikely face of “Human Rights Violations” in Egypt.

Idiocy is a dangerous state among those with a modicum of power. It is sometimes difficult to tell who is a bigger danger to peaceful survival of the state; those who loudly proclaim the desire to destroy it, or those who ineptly offer to defend it. The trouble with the current situation is that most  opponents of the state are bigger idiots. So how do we end this Jeremiad? We can begin by quoting the words of Emmanuel Abraham, an Ethiopian diplomat who spent decades smoothing the troubled relations between Egypt and Ethiopia. In 1995 he wrote “It seems to me that the modern people of Egypt, and especially that section which had a smattering of modern education and which in consequence has assumed the leadership of the common people, have abandoned the faith of their forefathers and have not fully grasped modern ideals and knowledge. They are like a man who goes out on a boat without oars.” It is good and well for people to insist that the Egyptian state becomes more democratic and “inclusive”, although this skeptical observer insists on an exact definition of what gets “included”. More importantly we should insist that the state advances its goals, even those we disagree with, intelligently. Those who want to bring democracy to Egypt might do well to start by bringing a pair of oars.

— Maged Atiya


On Guns in America

The following remarks were given by Monica Atiya to a meeting of local and congressional leaders on how to best reduce gun violence in America.

We come together today days after yet another campus tragedy.

The Roseburg shooter was described as shy and lonely with very little going for him except a passion for guns. A young man reminiscent of the Sandy Hook shooter. That same week, the Flagstaff campus incident came on the very day that President Obama was visiting Oregon to privately comfort the families and community there. At times like these, we find it obvious that guns are the problem.At times like these, others find it equally obvious that guns are the solution.

In order to make progress, we can not continue to demonize either side. Gun sales go up when we demonize the other side. Only gun manufacturers benefit. The gun lobby relies upon, and profits from, keeping us apart, when, in reality, a majority of the American people, responsible gun owners and gun safety advocates alike, have the same goal: to keep our children, our communities and ourselves safe.

Some say rational debate is not possible on the issue of guns. Rational debate is not only possible, it is the only way to save the over 33,000 victims, the bystanders caught in the crossfire, the suicides by gun, the innocent students and school staff, whose lives are lost to gun violence each year in America.

Though we may never fully understand the mentally ill, we may never fully unravel sociopathy, we must and we will work together to ensure that gun safety is every rational American’s priority.


Sykes-Picot II

The first President Bush asserted the right of the US to come to the defense of Kuwait when Iraq invaded it in 1990. His reasoning was simple and clear; the invasion was a violation of the Westphalian state order that has sustained sovereignty of nations since the 17th century. It would fall to his successors to violate this very same system under various pretexts. President Clinton ignored it under the “Right to Protect” in the Balkans. The second President Bush violated it to bring democracy to Iraq. President Obama violated it in Libya, also under the “Right to Protect” and in multitude of other places to hunt down terrorists who inflicted harm on US citizens.

President Putin of Russia has outdone all four American Presidents by emulating their contradictory actions within the space of two years; first under the pretext of protecting Russian ethnics in Crimea, and then under the pretext of protecting Syrian state sovereignty and persecuting a war on terrorists who harmed Russian citizens. Putin’s actions seem a burlesque of the American precedent only because of the authoritarian nature of the Russian system; but they are no more deadly and far less expensive. The point is that moral outrage is of little value here. The Levant has turned into a Minoan Labyrinth for great powers (US), former great powers (Russia) and shambling actors (Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia).

This could turn out very badly, even worse than the current chaos, unless good sense is retrieved quickly. The most rational outcome is some sort of imposed peace, respecting current borders, recognizing some spheres of influence, leaving certain undesirable actors, such as the so-called Islamic State, out in the cold, while respecting the interests of others. The US which has shown scant regard for national borders in the last decades needs a revamped policy that considers the desirable long term outcomes in the region. None of the regional or international actors are clean of hand or pure of heart, but proposing a hard-nosed solution may finally wrestle some relief for the suffering civilians. Anything else is a prelude to madness.

— Maged Atiya

 


In Praise of Sykes and Picot

The Sykes-Picot accord was a dastardly and wicked attempt by the colonial powers to divide the great Arab nation for their nefarious purposes”

Thus intoned the Fourth Grade Civics and History book widely used in Egypt throughout the 1960s. It would be more than two decades before one reader would begin to divine the nonsense therein. At its basic level the Anglo-French agreement created borders and recognized states to be ruled by Arab leaders for the first time in centuries. If these lines had not been drawn, it is likely that even smaller statelets or worse, mayhem, would have reigned. The reader with any doubt need look no further than current headlines about the bloodbath in the Levant.

The Arabs of the region would not have made a single unified nation had Sykes and Picot not made a few of them. And nothing really stopped them from uniting into larger units once the colonial powers departed two or three decades later. In fact, that departure occasioned the fragmentation of Lebanon, the descent of Syria and Iraq into despotism, and the laying bare of Arab lands for the grasping and meddling hands of the retrograde House of Ibn Saud, now rewarded with a Kingdom. Had oil not been discovered and made to fill its coffers that state would have collapsed as surely as the previous iterations of Wahabi Utopias. The current attempt at unification by the so-called Islamic State features a replica of Saudi Arabia, less the oil and the lavishly endowed royal family. It too will likely fail, by the usual means. Internal backstabbing among its leaders, corruption, and a fatal tendency to sell out to the highest bidder.

Today the Levant could do far worse than to restore the Sykes-Picot borders and create moderately repressive states within them. Far more likely there will be more, not less, states than Sykes and Picot imagined, and some of them will bring forth horrors on their inhabitants. So let us sing the praises of Sykes and Picot, two men who attempted to unify the Arabs, and failed not because they made too many states, but too few.
— Maged Atiya


The Failure Chorus

All societies come with problems; Egypt possesses many more of them than average. The author of this blog has called a few of them to light. Most of the glaring deficits, such as authoritarian governance, degraded public discourse, infantile politics, are symptoms of deeper ills which will take decades or longer to reform. Egypt, since the 1952 coup and the revival of the Islamists in 1970s, has forcibly “disappeared” many of its most serious thinkers and reformers, for they do not fit the views of the majority or the interests of the ruling elites. The process of rediscovering these voices and reigniting a long term effective social reform is by nature slow and painful, with many a reversal inevitable. The desired end result is societal, not merely political, reform. The worst outcome to be avoided, sometimes at painful costs, is state failure.

Still, humans yearn for a happy ending within the typical time constraints of a Hollywood movie. None more so that many outside observers and scholars who persuaded themselves, nay hung their reputations, on a tale of “Spring” and other such stuff. But Egypt stubbornly refused to follow the happy script. It is not a surprising outcome for many who observed the country and its struggles with its identity, the anchor chains of its history and the limitations of its resources. Rather than adjust the expectations, or revise the tale, many of the Scheherazades insist on finding alternate tales, with clear cut heroes and villains, well-identified moral lines and crisp recommendations for quick solutions. None of the recommendations frequently broadcast on editorial pages and social media will bring immediate relief to Egypt, nor a quick solution to its problems. Some might bring even greater suffering.

As the current regime consolidates its power, a vocal chorus has emerged. The voices within it rightly call out the regime  on its many errors, brutalities and occasional ineptness. They also pray for its collapse. It is unlikely, for a variety of reasons, that this “Failure Chorus” will contribute positively to a long-term positive outcome in Egypt.

First these voices do not criticize the regime in a manner likely to alter its behavior or provide a humane outcome in the many cases of injustices inflicted on specific individuals. Their eagerness to believe the worst of the regime often impairs their judgement, as tales from Egypt are never as straightforward as they appear. Surgeons normally use scalpels, as we must all agree.

Second, when these voices report on the current threats of terrorism and violence the tone teeters on the gleeful. They do not distinguish between those threats which are regional, and for which the regime of Morsi was ill prepared to deal with, and those that arise from his disaffected followers. Also, in the case of the latter, none of these voices ask if agents of this violence can be accepted as a future democratic force, and under what conditions. Instead, there is simply the sense that such violence is Egypt’s deserved lot for the sin of removing a dangerously hapless man from power grasped through deeply flawed political deals.

Third, these voices are constantly urging “punishment” for the regime, without articulating clearly if such punishment will alter its behavior or simply increase the suffering of the people. Such urgings exaggerate the power of outsiders, or more precisely of outsiders who are in broad agreement with this Failure Chorus.

Finally, these voices give little thought to the disaster that would afflict Egypt, and the world at large, should the Egyptian state fail, or should the Muslim Brotherhood, or a more virulent variant of it, acquires undisputed power through violence. No one with an iota of affection for Egyptians, generally or specifically, can see anything but horror in such outcome. This, more than anything else, renders the Failure Chorus suspect in the eyes of many Egyptians, and deaf even to its occasionally sensible recommendations.

The best way to deal with Egypt today is through understanding tempered with a cool detachment. When we gaze on Egypt we need to keep in our peripheral vision the bloody failures around it. The Failure Chorus, full of passion, is blinkered through selective focus and deafened by the voices raised in righteous indignation.

 

— Maged Atiya


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