Which Egypt Is Too Big To Fail ?Posted: February 8, 2013
Steven Cook, one of the best Western historians of modern Egypt, advances the argument that “Egypt is too big to fail” (Is Egypt Too Big To Fail?). It is a solid argument buttressed by many facts. It does ignore, however, that when nations come to the aid of another it is often for both practical and sentimental reasons. The US assisted England in the early years World War II, prior to its own entry, for reasons of Anglo-Saxon cultural affinity. Similarly the US support for Israel, a difficult ally at best, rests on a strong emotional foundation.
The new Egyptian constitution summarizes the current identity crisis of the country. It seems that there are three Egypts all jostling for the loyalty of the Egyptians. There is the “essential Egypt”, the “Arab Egypt” and the “Muslim Egypt”. In short, Egypt, the Arab Republic of Egypt, and the Islamic Republic of Egypt. It is possible that the assistance to Egypt will depend on which Egypt emerges from this current torment. The Islamic Republic of Egypt may get some assistance from Qatar, although not likely from other Gulf states, or many other Islamic states for that matter. It is unlikely that the Arab Republic of Egypt will get much assistance from the Arabs, as the sad denouement of Nasser shows us. These scenarios are all subject to debate. One thing is certain, the West will not rush to prop up a pseudo-Caliphate or a zealous Arab nation. Global, and in particular Western, emotional attachment is to Ancient Egypt, and one that they imagine will emerge into a liberal nation. That Egypt closely resembles the familiar templates in the Western mind. When the West cheered the crowds at Tahrir Square in 2011, it was because they closely resembled the “right” version of Egypt, never mind the underlying facts and prospects of the revolution.
The reality, of course, is that there is no single Egyptian identity. But the popular passion and support necessary to garner large scale investment in another country relies almost entirely on vague emotional attachments, not reasoned debate. Part of the recent Western interest in Egyptian Copts (prickly Egyptian to the core) is their Christian roots and their attachment to Pharaonic heritage. Egyptology, for its first century, was a Western creation, from Fourier to Champollion to Maspero to Carter, and it still retains a certain resonance in the West. The West may aid Egypt in small or large ways, but it will depend on which version of Egypt the current rulers will project to the world.
Steven Cook is right to criticize “misplaced arrogance”. A century and half ago, Khedive Ismael foolishly proclaimed Egypt to be part of Europe. It was a vanity project unmoored from the reality and lacking in any foundation of a modern state. It was as un-authentically Egyptian as the concurrent Meiji restoration was authentically Japanese. One came to grief very quickly and one succeeded spectacularly. A residue of Ismael’s failed project and its humiliation remains in the Egyptian psyche. The West has grown wary of Imperialism and will not likely attempt a repeat of the 1876 scenario. But it could also let Egypt limp by as a semi-failed state, as long as the chaos is contained. The one sure way out is for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands and not wait for assistance, or at least motivate the right kind of assistance. The Egyptian identity crisis is not mere teenage angst, it is a serious business with real consequences to the Egyptians.