Interfering in Egypt (5)

Naguib Sawiris was in Washington in a reflective and pessimistic mood.  He is a remarkable man in being both a genuine Egyptian patriot and in lacking the haze of self-pity and defensiveness that often goes with patriotism. His reply to the facile statement often made by both Egyptian and foreign politicians that Egypt must find an “Egyptian solution” for its problems was “I hope not, have you seen our traffic?” In a short sentence he cut through the core of the paranoia and defensiveness that has infected Egypt in the last 60 years and caused much of the subsequent decline. His response to the question by the moderator of “How can the US help Egyptian liberals?” was “Do not do anything, we get in trouble every time you try to do something”. He was, or course, partially right. But only partially.

The analogy of Egypt today is to a man with a broken leg. Without assistance he will surely get worse. Yet any assistance will involve depending on others and an appearance of weakness and perhaps a blow to his self-esteem. The liberal forces have been weakened by their principled stand against the Nasser military regime to the point where only less tolerant forces have flourished in that fetid atmosphere of repression. People offered two forms of repression have often opted for the one not currently in power, as hope often overcomes reason.

Egypt needs help. Egyptian liberals are the best hope for a genuinely Egyptian and vibrant reclamation of the oldest civilization, and one that respects the many strains and diversity of Egyptian life. Egyptians are religious, as Herodotus noted 2500 years ago, and extreme secularism scares them. But a clear scenario of religious intolerance has yet to be presented with its full effects on both Egypt and the region. This is where help is needed.

Egyptian liberals have no voice in Washington DC, in spite of the visceral appeal they make to both the American public and the American political class. Egyptian Americans have been hesitant to do so, precisely because of warnings such those issued by Sawiris.  But the situation has deteriorated and action is necessary. What is needed is a genuinely Egyptian lobbying effort in the US, and perhaps other Western countries, for effective aid to Egypt. The alternative is a poor country indebted to the IMF, and passing the tin cup to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  This is a nightmare for Egypt and the West.

Any effective lobbying effort must be supported by Egyptians and Egyptian Americans of both religious persuasions. An effective, non-denominational effort is the one most likely to succeed, as it will appeal to all sectors of the American public. The appeal must have achievable goals. Simply dumping money into the coffers of Egypt will not work. It will be grabbed by whatever political forces, good or bad, and wasted away, as it has been under Mubarak. A more effective form of support would be direct assistance to educational institutions and cross-cultural exchanges. These would have long term positive effects and short term benefits, as they promote tourism to bolster the sagging reserves. Additionally, these can be largely non-governmental, thus escaping the iron boot of politicization and vagaries of politics. These would also build on foundations currently in place and therefor likely to succeed.

This is the political season in both the US and Egypt. The warm glow of affection people felt for Egypt in those two weeks in the winter of 2011 is fading. But that can be recaptured if we have the courage not to waste the moment.

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