Monday, July 08, 2013

Good News from Egyptland

Egypt is never going to get any better. And that's the good news. If your job involves waiting for some outbreak of Arab Spring to fix the country or the region, you can give up now.

Or you can do what most government employees already do and phone it in. Master Sudoku. Learn to knit. Figure out how they get those ships into those bottles. And in between those things write up encouraging and hopeful things about the latest revolution.

Sure Egypt does have a lot of people willing to risk their lives by protesting for a form change that's more open than burkas. Some of those people are even okay. They're also the minority.

Democracy in Egypt and Turkey rewarded the lowest common denominator voter. The type of voter who gets all his ideas from his Islamist cable television channel that he watches in between working some menial job in Cairo or Istanbul while being grateful to be living in a grungy stretch of a city, instead of trying to scrounge a living in what passes for rural areas.

Egypt's revolution involved two sets of Western educated elites tugging at a poor post-feudal population that wants cheap bread and some kind of stability, but is filled with simmering anger over a multitude of things.

The first set of Western educated elites are the liberal protesters who take in stunning amounts of American and European pop culture, work for Western tech companies and banks and come from the upper classes. They look and sound a lot like Americans, except that the ability to look and sound like Americans outside the United States is an upper class signifier.

The American twenty-something who checks his Facebook status on his iPhone and has some variably useful degree is likely to be an accident of the middle class. His Third World counterpart usually has wealthy or influential parents. What looks ordinary to Americans is actually upper class in a part of the world where most people are poor.

The second set of Western educated elites are the Islamists, who lack the same pop culture grounding, though even Morsi was able to reference Planet of the Apes in a Time Magazine interview (It's unknown if he's holed up somewhere now screaming, "You maniacs, you blew it up) from his days studying in the United States.

The Brotherhood may be out to drag Egypt and every other place they take over back to the 7th century, but they are also led by the wealthy and the well educated. There's a reason why the operatives of the Muslim Brotherhood are moving smoothly up the ladder in the United States instead of living in grimy apartments in Jersey City and plotting to blow up bridges and tunnels like their Islamic Group comrades. If they're Sonny Corleone, the Brotherhood is Michael Corleone.

Strip away the ideology and there are two sets of technocrats, both running on muddled Western ideas that never actually worked in the West. The Brotherhood pieced together an ideology out of the Koran and Mein Kampf. Their liberal opponents tend toward the same bankrupt Socialism that translate into massive bureaucracies. And the military which played the arbiter in their power struggles only cares about hanging on to its economic monopolies.

Don't think of what's going on in Egypt as some grand ideological struggle. It is, but it also isn't. Think of it as three mob families, oligarchies where economic and clan interests overlap, fighting over the scrap heap of the Egyptian economy. The prizes are economic monopolies over everything from cigarettes to soap. And if that doesn't seem very romantic, in Syria the rebels are fighting over control of the country's most vital resource; bakeries.

The Egyptian military used to have big ideas. Those big ideas led to the end of the monarchy and the posturings of Nasser who spent more time looking at himself in the mirror than planning his futile wars and economic programs. Then came pragmatists like Sadat and Mubarak who were less interested in playing some cheap Hitlers presiding over a banana republic and chose stability instead.

Sadat and Mubarak chose to ally with the United States not because they believed in any common values, but because they were ready to settle down to running a backward country that might be mostly poor and ignorant, but is also reasonably stable and is able to count on American support. That plan came apart when Obama came into office and Sadat's killers became the future of Egypt.

The Egyptian military is mostly apolitical these days. And it is willing to play the two politicals, the two sets of technocratic elites, the liberals and the Islamists, against each other. Unlike the Turkish military, it's not here to be the guardian of secularism. Like the rest of Egypt, its military is a little bit Islamist and a lot corrupt. It puts family connections and personal profits first and then pays lip service to the Koran of the Islamists and the social justice of the liberals.

Today the Egyptian military cleared out the Islamists for the liberals. Tomorrow it may clear out the liberals for the Islamists. It's a very Roman system and is the inevitable outcome of the process.

The United States has invested a whole lot of money into building up an Egyptian military that is never meant to be used. But a giant army doesn't just sit there. If it is denied an enemy to fight, then it becomes a domestic political institution.

Regionally large armies unrestrained by a stable government or a powerful dictator become the government. The Egyptian military has been the government in one form or another for generations. Its officers have run the country. Did anyone really think that was going to change because there was an election?

If Egypt had a sane political culture and could produce a democratic playing field in which separate factions and parties could get along, then maybe the Egyptian military would have been reduced to polishing their latest shipments from Lockheed's factories. But if Egypt had a sane political culture, history would be entirely different.

Nixon refrained from challenging JFK's dubious victory and Gore didn't push too hard over Florida. There's a tradition of that sort of thing in American politics where fraud is considered less of a threat than an attack on the legitimacy of the process. It's one of the reasons why we still haven't descended into mob rule and military governments. Even if those might be an improvement at this point.

Democracy was never going to work in Egypt because the players were substantially too far apart. And neither were invested in democracy. Democracy in Egypt was like the awkward press conference that boxers have before a match. They're not very good at it and they're just trying to get it over with so they can beat each other senseless. No one liked the idea of living within a system in which the lower classes would decide your political fate. What they liked was the idea that the system would declare them the only true rulers of the country for all time.

Dedicated Arab Springers are telling us that reform and political change don't happen overnight. That's true. But they're not going to happen in Egypt any time soon. Egypt isn't getting any better. And why should it when the United States isn't getting any better. A look around the world shows few examples of improving political cultures. Why should Egypt be the exception?

Anything can happen in Egypt tomorrow.Total totalitarian Islamist rule. A state of permanent anarchy. A military dictatorship. Rule by Egypt's endless professional guilds. Or all of the above on a rotating weekly basis.

It doesn't really matter one way or another from our perspective as long as none of the Islamist ideologies that are a little too eager to kill us get their hands on all the military equipment we keep shipping Egypt for a war that isn't supposed to happen. Everything else isn't our problem.

Washington is full of senators demanding that Egypt transition back to a democracy as soon as possible with a new election. Egypt can have a new election. It can have a dozen of them. But you have to be a fool to think that waving the magic cargo cult totem of democracy  will fix anything. Zero sum gamesmanship is incompatible with democracy and a culture where everyone assumes that everything is rigged (and they're probably right) is never going to accept the outcome of the ballot box.

Progress isn't coming to Egypt any time soon. Its political system isn't broken because there aren't enough voting booths, but because its culture is broken. Injecting democracy into a broken culture is like throwing cash at a drug addict. All you're doing is giving him another way to kill himself.

Democracy in Egypt isn't progress, it's a civil war by other means. Democracy in Egypt didn't point the way to a better world. It began a civil war.


  1. Anonymous8/7/13

    Once again a brilliant piece

  2. The unsettling consequence of your story is, besides the poor Egyptian populace getting an even worse life than at the time of Mubarak's rule, is the fait of the Sinai dessert. Who is going to keep the ever more violent gangs organizing and operating there in check? If Israel would do what would be best, retake the area, it would seriously violate the peace agreement and if Egypt's military would, they can only do do by bringing in more and more heavy equipment, be it that such would need Israeli consent, but with the risk of a military built-up that could be directed at Israel if only to distract the population from it's misery.

  3. Anonymous8/7/13

    Baguette Man was a classic!

  4. To a Jew, Egypt has to have a certain fascination, and I've been trying to figure it out since I was a child when Nasser was in charge. What is "modern" Egypt? Is it somehow a continuation of Egypt of the Pharaohs or of Ptolemy or of the Sultans whom Maimonides served? Is it another Arab nation or an enclave of Western culture of some sort? I'm afraid that not only do I not know the answer, but neither do the "Egyptians".

  5. Anonymous8/7/13

    Brilliant but it is not what the idealists want to hear.

    All that military hardware was supposed to passify the Army only now, it looks like they get to use it on their own people. Good enough.

    They have a need to kill or be killed, that is there excitement in this life. As long as they don' point those M-1 Abrams tanks at Israel, fine.

  6. roger in florida8/7/13

    Mr. Greenfield,
    As always thank you for your erudition. For those interested Caroline Glick has an analysis that is equally depressing, she refers to the anti brotherhood opposition as a bunch of Nasserite fascists and pan Arab socialists, none of them interested in "liberalism" in the classic western sense. For Egypt there is no hope, only a future of even more desperate poverty which in their context means actual starvation for millions. Their only hope for progress is to appeal to Israel for technical assistance, particularly in the agricultural sector, but this they will never do.
    What a mess.

  7. Anonymous8/7/13

    Thank you for this illuminating piece. I am curious as to what the US stands to gain from all of it. Thus far, our insistence on intervening in Middle Eastern affairs has yet to yield even a drop of cheap gas or anything we could count as a benefit. I have grave doubts that most DC politicians even remember they were elected to serve their country and its citizens. To wit, what's in it for THEM to keep stirring the pot?

  8. It is a mess and the Obama administration has no clue what is going on.

  9. Al Sisi was regarded as "devout" when studying military theory in the US. "Devout" as in a "devout Islamist". El Baradei was the designated savior (by deception) of the Iranian nuclear program. And then a bunch of guys threw a couple of guys who had thrown stones at their protest from the rooftop in Alexandria, and then kicked them in the head. Welcome to Camel Lot.

  10. "But you have to be a fool to think that waving the magic cargo cult totem of democracy will fix anything."

    You hit the nail on the head there, Daniel. That's exactly what it is-- form rather than function.

    I have a friend from grad school who was involved in this revolution. And so, last week I congratulated her. But I had serious doubts that her little group represented anyone other than themselves. And it seems to me that they have a belief that the form of democracy can give them freedom and prosperity that Americans have enjoyed, without the engine that drives our society: Western Culture and its values.

    However, if one good thing comes out of the events in Egypt, perhaps it will spur Americans here where those values are still operative to stand up to increasing tyranny at home. It is here that we have the values and structures to do so, should we ever decide that it can be done.

  11. Anonymous9/7/13

    The part you are missing - islamicists and the poor that support them are genuinely ignorant, stupid people. They spend too much time reading the Koran, and not enough time reading basic math textbooks. Assuming they can even read. Magical thinking and conspiracies prevade their thoughts.

    You can't run a modern nation with such people making decisions. It simply 80 IQ is fine for herding goats, but it is functionally retarded in a modern economy.

    So, I expect to see what I see - Islamicists get elected, everything goes to hell, the military boots them out...things get a little better, then islamicists get in power again. Rinse and repete.

    Basically a banana republic without the bananas.

  12. Anonymous9/7/13

    "Nixon refrained from challenging JFK's dubious victory and Gore didn't push too hard over Florida. There's a tradition of that sort of thing in American politics where fraud is considered less of a threat than an attack on the legitimacy of the process."

    Nice try, but no dice. Gore DID push way too hard in Florida, and he was engaging in and / or winking at fraud to do it. Because you're average committed Democrat has about as much respect for democracy as does the average Egyptian Islamist.

  13. Gore could have pushed far harder.

  14. Anonymous10/7/13

    Firsthand experience, opinion: Some people (muslims, in this case) require a dictator. The plethora of differing views on their koran and their belief that any view other than their own requires the murder of those propagating it, is a recipe for continual internecine war

    The only muslim nations that I've visited, where order was maintained, were those where the population feared the government more than their neighbors

    We need to become free of any need for that region's oil and free ourselves of their madness. Every attempt we have ever made to help those countries, has done nothing but made new enemies who are then more free to vent their hatred on any American interest

    The only freedom I want, regarding that region, is freedom from any dealings with them. The only money that should be sent to that part of the world is to Israel; our only true ally there