31 Jan
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Egypt Crisis 360°

One of my best friends is an Egyptian Catholic Copt.

Youssef was raised in Cairo, educated in a French Catholic school, and speaks Arabic, French, and English.  His father is Catholic and his mother is Coptic Orthodox.  I met Youssef 7.5 years ago on my first day of college in Montreal.  We were roommates for 3 years.

Much of my understanding of Egypt comes from Youssef and his stories about home, complemented by my own readings and close following of current events.  Youssef’s father owns a printing press and has, at times, been relatively active in political movements aimed at creating a free and democratic society.  Youssef’s mother works for an American company in the sphere of university-related services.  His family, like most families in Egypt, is devoutly religious.  I remember hearing his family’s typical schedule for Holy Week, which includes fasting and Church services that stretch for 6 hours at a time.  The Christians of Egypt, 10% of the population, in this regard remain a cohesive community, separate and apart from their secular relations with Muslims on the streets everyday.

I’ll recall briefly a few anecdotal stories of the anti-Christian and anti-Western hatred that permeates Egypt.  The fatal stabbings of two nuns that generated no police investigation; a cab driver claiming that “the Americans” stored their weapons in local Churches; unemployed masses of (often illiterate) men smoking shisha, listening to an Imam denounce all that did not comport with his own individual interpretation of the Qur’an.  Of course, there are fairly regular bombings of churches and other acts of terrorism against the Christian minority, to say nothing of Egyptian Jews.

President Hosni Mubarak, a secular leader in the tradition of Nasser and Sadat, has clung to power partially through his alleged protection of this Christian minority and its ancient traditions and roots.  Mubarak has also enjoyed the support of the West and of Israel, for maintaining the peace treaty that his predecessor, Sadat brokered and for which he was assassinated.  For this Mubarak, at times a ruthless dictator whose secret police routinely arrest, torture, and kill political dissidents, was viewed as an ally.  Egypt is the second largest recipient of American aid, with a total of $1.5 billion allocated to humanitarian and military causes annually.

Mubarak also enjoys the support of the Egyptian military, perhaps the most important of all Egyptian secular institutions.  A decorated war veteran and former head of the Egyptian Air Force, his ties with the generals run deep.  While the police of Egypt, 3x more numerous than the military, are deeply corrupt and hated by the populace, the military is generally respected.

Mubarak’s leading political opponents are the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan in Arabic).  Founded in 1928, the stated political goal of this Islamic group is a worldwide Sunni caliphate: that is, a totalitarian Islamic state spanning the globe.  One of its most influential intellectuals is Sayyid-Qutb, whose 1964 Milestones denounces Western decadence and calls for rule based strictly on the jurisprudence as derived from the Qur’an.  Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentor, Ayman al-Zawahiri was a member of the Brotherhood; Al-Qaeda itself is an outgrowth of the Brotherhood, as is Hamas.

Mubarak outlawed the Brotherhood in Egypt, barring them from participating in elections.  This suggests a popular threat to secular rule.  To get around the ban, Brotherhood politicians have run as Independents.  According to news reports, the Brotherhood is the provider of food, health care, security, and other basic services to the vast majority of Egyptians; quite similar to the function of the American mafia of yesteryear in ethnic communities.  Having forsworn violence, their operatives now prefer a sophisticated approach to gain further popularity including religious messaging, anti-Western sentiment, anti-government populism, and genuinely useful social activism.

In recent years the Brotherhood has grown in strength, mainly because President Mubarak’s inability to successfully reform the economy of Egypt.  High unemployment has been a problem for decades.  Inflation eats away at the purchasing power of the Egyptian pound.  State socialism, the legacy of Nasser, stifles opportunity and leaves young men and women socially ostracized.  The events in Tunisia, fueled by very similar economic conditions, gave the impetus for a spontaneous revolt among Egyptians, who are struggling to afford basic living necessities.

Mubarak’s violent suppression and outlawing of the Brotherhood, while supported by Egyptian Christians generally as well as the West, garners them additional support from sympathetic citizens, who depend on the Brotherhood in order to subsist.  Polls of Egyptian support for the Brotherhood range from 30% to 80%, depending on the source and how the questions are asked.  (See here for a sample.)  Perhaps the last significant event to damage Mubarak’s credibility was his 2009 announcement to name his son Gamal as his successor, reinforcing his reputation as a Pharaoh-like ruler with dynastic succession.  (His party, the NDP, garnered over 99% of the votes in the last so-called election.)

Egypt itself, by virtue of its geographically strategic position, its status as an intellectual and cultural center in the Middle East, and its 80 million inhabitants, is of critical strategic importance to U.S. interests in the region, and globally.  The wrong successor to Mubarak could conceivably cancel the peace treaty with Israel.  Oil prices, steadily rising over the last 6 months to $90/barrel, could spike at $120, $140, or more.  This would almost certainly throw our (albeit very meager) economic recovery into a tailspin.  Military agreements with Egypt, which have been strong from 30 years, could be canceled, presenting complicating logistical challenges.

Nobody would accuse President Mubarak of being a benevolent dictator.  By all accounts, he is a fierce tyrant who plays off fears to stay in power and trades his peace with Israel and his Western-friendly posturing for silence from the West.  Hence, the United States, which has always supported his rule, is in a difficult position.  On the one hand, the protests began with the youth of Egypt, who were in all likelihood looking for genuine democratic reforms and increased freedom.  On the other hand, this is also how the Iranian Revolution, which ushered in Khomeini, began.  Mubarak, a thuggish ruler unresponsive to the needs his people, can in many respects be compared to the Shah, whose aggressive and violent repression of Islamic extremist and moderate citizen alike, eventually led to his toppling.  It was only a matter of a few short years before the Iranian Revolution turned sour, leaving many longing for a return to the days of the Shah.

The best-case scenario would look something like this: Mubarak announces his intention not to run for office in the next election, and a truly free election leads to the the rise of a Western friendly, popular, liberal reformer.  Unfortunately, this is almost unimaginable.  The currently anarchic protest movement right now seems to be rallying around the intellectual and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.  ElBaradei was previously Director General of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency; a position in which he was generally viewed as uncooperative to American interests, and Iranian friendly.  ElBaradei has a history of being Brotherhood tolerant, if not outright friendly.  Just yesterday, it was reported that the Brotherhood endorsed ElBaradei as “spokesman for the opposition groups.”  While ostensibly more moderate and  Western-friendly than the Brotherhood, Elbaradei is not viewed as a strong leader capable of maintaining secular rule.  Legitimate fears exist that he would soon be replaced by a Brotherhood leader after he had served his transitional role.  The West, thrilled and worried with the freedom uprising, can be fairly confident that no Egyptian equivalent of James Madison will emerge popular and powerful.  If he or she exists, the culture would not support his or her political rise.

It is hard for Westerners to understand the thinking in foreign nations.  The cultural miscommunication between the United States and Europe, at times more or less pronounced, pales in comparison that with the Arab world.  Lack of common religious traditions, few common institutions, a radically different language, a history of warfare and invasion, and a modern world plagued by Islamic terrorism provide the psychic and historical barriers to better understanding.  Western projection of values is truly ignorance and naivete in the extreme.  America’s successful support for democratic rule in the Middle East, most notably Iraq, have come at a great cost and only after many long years of setbacks.  Two weeks ago, Egypt was thought to be a stable and reliable ally.  This is no longer a safe assumption.

My friend Youssef is unquestionably happy with the events unfolding.  As a liberal 20-something, living among Westerners while completing a Masters Degree in Engineering, he despises President Mubarak, his intolerance for political dissent, rampant police corruption and abuses, social unrest, the obviously rigged elections, and sporadic terrorism that define the Egyptian state and polity.  As a friend and as an American, it is difficult to express simultaneously my support for human freedom and also a reluctance to fully embrace a revolutionary movement without a defined purpose.  Power loves a vacuum, they say, and here a vacuum is being created.  Typically such vacuums suck in the most powerful and organized political organizations.  Illegal or not, the Brotherhood is that group, their only potential competitor being the Egyptian military; much more so than young students and democratic activists.

DISCLAIMER: This post and the contents thereof are the views of only the author identified immediately above and do not necessarily represent the views of the New York Young Republican Club (the "NYYRC"), its officers or its members. The NYYRC expressly disclaims responsibility for the contents thereof and by its charter documents may not, and does not, endorse any candidate for any office, except in a general election.

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