Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Crisis In Egypt

Every weekend at my blog, I write a background piece (World Beat) about a given topic in international politics. This weekend, I have chosen to write about the crisis in Egypt. I wouldn't normally post a World Beat piece here at Right Speak since they don't necessarily deal with the conservative movement. However, I think that what is going on in Egypt will have large consequences on future American foreign policy making. And since I hope that a Republican will be in charge of such foreign policy making, I think that my piece on Egypt might be worth posting here.
Egypt is entering Day 6 of protests that have led to the death of over 100 people and caused limited changes within the current government. It is difficult to specifically tell who exactly are the protesters and what precisely is driving their angry, but they all seem to be united in their desire to see President Hosni Mubarak step down.

A casual glance among the crowds reveals that many of the protesters are young males. Muslim majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East have some of the highest percentages of young people in the world. The region's under 30 population is 60 percent of the broader population. The region also sports the highest unemployment rates in the world. Of course, young adults are not the only ones disillusioned with their country's lack of prosperity. Egypt at large has been hit hard by the economic crisis that began in 2008. The Egyptian pound is pegged to the American dollar and as the dollar has declined against other world currencies, the result in Egypt has been that food prices have risen.

Ellen Knickmeyer of Foreign Policy noted a recurring trend as she talked with young adults in North Africa and the Middle East. They all complained about needing a wasta (a connection) with the their country's ruling party, tribal leaders, and prominent businessmen. They often complained about the need to pay bribes to make such connections or their lack of money to pay those bribes in the first place.

Corruption in Egypt is especially notorious as it has been institutionalized by its leader, Hosni Mubarak, who has remained in power for the last thirty years. And leaving aside the rigged presidential elections, local elections have succumbed to government control. The New York Times has reported that "in local council elections in 2008, there were 52,000 open seats. Government decisions to disqualify candidates meant that 43,600 seats were uncontested and awarded to the ruling party. Out of a total of 51,546 seats, the ruling party won 99.13%."

“In midterm elections for one-third of the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament, held in 2007, the first elections to be held after the constitutional amendments removed judges from supervising the electoral process, a total of 88 seats were open. The results: 84 seats for the ruling N.D.P., 1 seat for Tagammu, a small opposition party, and 3 seats for N.D.P. members who ran as independent candidates.”

While government leaders from around the world surely sympathize with the protesting Egyptians, they also harbor reservations about who would gain control of the government apparatus should Mubarak finally be pushed out. Egypt's largest opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, more than likely stands the most to gain. In 2000, the Muslim Brotherhood won 17 seats in the People's Assembly. Five years later, they won 20% of the seats. Their success led to Mubarak officially outlawing any political party that is religiously based. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is barred from political office, but its influence has not diminished.

Egypt is also known as the fountain head of Islamic thought. Cairo, for example, houses Al-Azhar University, whom some say is the world's oldest university and Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning. What happens at Al-Azhar University has tremendous reverberations throughout the Muslim world. If Egypt falls into the hands of a religiously-oriented theocratic government, it might have devastating consequences for Western diplomacy in the Middle East. This is perhaps why Joe Biden clumsily stated that Mubarak is not a dictator. Even though Mubarak's Egypt votes with the United States only 17 percent of the time, American officials worry that Mubarak's successor may be much worse, even if it means avoiding stating the obvious about the Egyptian leader. 

Thus far the Muslim Brotherhood have played a very small role in the protests. Anger against the current government seems to be based on economic and political troubles, not religious ones. Yet, what matters is not who starts a revolution, but who ends it. A key factor in how the revolution proceeds from this point is the military, which has been the guarantor of the government throughout modern Egyptian history. It is unclear if Mubarak's control of the military will continue as many troops have shown a passive approval of the protesters in the streets. The key will be how midranking military officers respond to the crisis. It was midranking officers, led by Gamal Nasser, that overthrew the British in 1952, and midranking officers again in 1981 that assassinated Nasser's successor.

The United States finds itself in a very weak position regarding Egypt. As already mentioned, its fear of the outcome limits his policy options. But furthermore, its financial complicity with Mubarak limit the American government as well. The United States currently gives over $1.3 billion in military aid a year to the Egyptian government. Furthermore, since 1975, USAID has given over $28 billion in economic and development aid to Egypt. Mubarak has long been an ally of the United States since his country recognized Israel in 1979. Many of the protesters in the streets recognize the United States as an enabler of Mubarak.

Either way, the protests in Egypt are uniquely an Egyptian creation and will continue or die out depending upon Egyptian efforts.


Bill589 said...

Our country’s dealings with the world seem pretty messed up. I’m sure there is some great reason why our government gives our money to tyrants. But I think, through time, won’t things always get worse?

Either way, it’s times like this I find myself wishing we had a real President.

OhioJOE said...

Well said Bill. I am not in favor of totally eliminating foreign aid, but we need to cut back with regards to giving to such Banana Republics.

On another note, as my son and I watched event in Egypt on TV, he said "oh, this is happening in Cairo, too bad it is not happening in Washington (DC.)" I had to explain that things are not nearly as bad yet in our country. I almost sounded like my own mother which kind of gave me food for thought.

BOSMAN said...

UNTIL we know who is LEADING THE MOBS, better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

The last thing we need RIGHT NEXT to Israel is another Iran.

If the intent of the backers of this revolt is to instal some imam, then let me know where to send a check to support Mubarak's regime!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Bos!


Pablo said...

"If the intent of the backers of this revolt is to instal some imam, then let me know where to send a check to support Mubarak's regime!"

I don't think that is the intent of the protesters at all. However, it doesn't matter who starts the revolution, but who finishes it. American policymakers are worried that the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt the protest.

In the end, there is little we can do but watch.

kelly said...

Doing nothing may be better than doing something wrong.