Possibility of a Bleak Future for Egypt

Egypt is beginning its third round of elections. Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists – heavily dominated the first two rounds. There is little reason to believe that this will change in later rounds.

One spot of good news is that the Islamists have stated that they intend to honor Egypt’s international commitments, i.e. the peace treaty with Israel. This is all to the good, since conflict with Israel would be a disaster for Egypt on almost every level. The more likely danger would be that Israel would have to divert to its southern border – which has been relatively quiet for over 30 years. Here again, this wouldn’t be good for Israel, but it wouldn’t do much good for Egypt either.

But the real dangers are to Egypt itself.

The universe of elections in the Middle East is small, so a statistical proof is probably not appropriate. But I can think of two cases in which reasonably fair elections in Arab countries that did not have a king (that can really matter) took place and brought Islamist parties to power. The two cases were Algeria and the PA. Both ended in civil wars as the displaced powers decided not to share with the elected Islamists. In Algeria the military rejected the election results and plunged the country into a decade of civil war that took tens of thousands of lives, helped spark the growth of al-Qaeda, and has not completely come to an end. In the PA the civil war was much quicker, but bloody nonetheless as Hamas purged Gaza of Fatah – creating an Islamist mini-state along the strategic crossroads of two continents.

One certainly hopes things do not go this way in Egypt – ideally the military and the Islamists will figure out a way to live with one another. But that may not be possible. Egypt’s economy is a nightmare. Even if the immediate situation were stable (and it isn’t) the long-term trends are terrible. The population is growing very fast, the country is running out of water, and Egypt has limited resources or industries for export. Actually, Egypt’s great export is tourism where Egypt really does have incomparable resources. Unfortunately political instability hits tourism harder then just about any other industry.

The Islamists will need to figure out how to manage this, but if the military continues holding on to key elements of power the Muslim Brotherhood will become extremely frustrated. It isn’t hard to see this blowing up. The military’s ongoing crackdowns show every sign that the military is prepared to defend its place in the national order. Seeing the once all-powerful Mubarak a broken man on trial certainly cannot give confidence to the Egyptian brass. So far the Islamists are trying to show the military that they are not looking for a confrontation, but given that ultimately they will be unable to address Egypt’s core problems at some point there is a real possibility of the Islamists and the military coming into conflict. If a frustrated MB continues to cooperate withthe military and not challenge the perks of the top brass, it is easy to imagine more radical forces emerging and pressing for the rejection of the democratic process and calling for violent revolution. A further complicating factor is the question of the military’s ability to crackdown. If protests go past a certain point, and the military police are insufficient, the regular army may not respond. This open question only increases the possibility of a deadly miscalculation.

The United States faces an unenviable challenge. Keeping Egypt more or less stable is in our national interest. Supporting a rejection of the democratic process is against American interests and values – but so is seeing Egypt become an Islamist state. Navigating this diplomatic Scylla and Charybdis will involve very difficult choices about identifying the less evil.

it would be a fine thing if Egypt’s military rulers were well-schooled in give-and-take politics and could be seen as fostering and cultivating Egyptian democracy and reform. Alas, this is unlikely based on past behavior.


Predicting the Arab Spring was impossible, but foreseeing the possibility that Mubarak’s reign would become untenable was not. This day was going to come, sooner or later.

There is an ugly reality in international affairs that sometimes the US must do business with unpleasant regimes. The old “he’s an SOB, but he’s our SOB” problem. Jeanne Kirkpatrick handled it a touch more eloquently in her landmark essay “Dictatorships and Double-Standards.” Kirkpatrick notes that the U.S. had a reasonably good record of working with dictators while pressing them to keep open a space for political opposition. All over the world, when dictators fell there was a civil society to replace them. At the same time, while the U.S. was certainly blamed in many quarters for its support of the dictator, it also had allies among the opposition and relations were not destroyed when a democratic government took over. This trend, which occured on several continents in different circumstances, was quite remarkable and a real achievement for American diplomacy.

Unfortunately, the Middle East was immune. It is difficult to say whether this was due to the region’s political culture or a failure of American diplomacy. In my study of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (there was also a parallel Mubarak-Gore Commission) I noted the American belief in aid packages that transform nations (sort of IR social work.) It doesn’t always take. Still, efforts in Egypt could have been more extensive. Egypt’s economy really only started liberalizing in the past decade (friends who follow this closely credit Gamal Mubarak with real success in this) but it can take time for liberalization to improve the well-being of every sector of society and Egyptians didn’t have much time to wait.

Whether or not a secular opposition could have flourished in Egypt is an open question – but Mubarak never gave it much of a chance. Nor was the government held accountable for the consistent stream of conspiracy theory and vitriol emanating from the state controlled press. Finally, reforming Egyptian institutions may have been beyond American capabilities – but at least greater efforts could have been made in the three decades in which Egypt was a leading recipient of US foreign aid.

Too late now. Hopefully – and it really is a slender hope – Egypt can find a way forward and shake the vast weight of history. Hopefully, but past experience does not augur well for the future.

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