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Background to the Egyptian Revolution

I am no more an expert on Egypt than on Tunisia, but I have been to both places in recent years – and on my visit to Cairo and its environs, two or three years ago, I did precisely what I did when I sojourned in Tunisia earlier in the millennium. I took the opportunity to speak with the Egyptians and the expatriates to whom I was introduced and to read a bit about the place.

Egypt is not like Tunisia. To begin with, it is not now and never has been a backwater. It is, as Herodotus observed long ago, “the gift of the Nile,” and thanks to that great river, it has the largest population of any Arab country. Although it has little in the way of oil, it has water, fertile soil, a hardworking peasant population, and hydro-electric power. It also has a large, well-educated middle class and a sizable indigenous Christian population, said by one of my interlocutors to make up not 10% of the population as a whole (as the Egyptian government claims) but something in the neighborhood of 20%.

Egypt is moreover, the place in the Arab world where books are published and films, made; and Al-Azhar University in Cairo is the world’s chief center for Sunni Muslim learning and for the study of Arabic literature. Egypt exercises cultural hegemony within the Arab-speaking world. The uprising now underway is of the greatest importance. As Egypt goes, so go the Arabs more generally.

Egypt differs from Tunisia in other ways as well. Its ethos is not secular. Its Coptic Christians are fiercely religious, and so are its Muslims – and with every passing year Islam’s hold on the people is greater. Had I visited Cairo in 1955 and moved in circles like those within which I moved on my recent trip, I would not have met a single woman who was veiled. Fashionable Western dress was in vogue, but that is no longer the case. At that time, I would have encountered a great many women who were professionals. There were more women professors in Egypt in 1955 than in the United States.

Yesteryear’s Egypt was a product of Arab nationalism. Its model was Europe, and those within its middle class were not particular fervent in their adherence to the tenets of Islam. Their hero was Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, who led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Nasser was not like Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba a cosmopolitan lawyer educated abroad, intent on turning his country into an Arab France. He was a military man from a modest background, a lieutenant-colonel who had never studied abroad, and a fierce Pan-Arab nationalist, who helped form the Association of Free Officers after witnessing the ineptitude of the Egyptian army in 1948 when King Farouk dispatched it to Palestine against the Israelis.

After the revolution, he installed a general at the head of the government, then after a time sidelined him. His signature piece of legislation was a land-reform law.  He abolished the monarchy, banned political parties, isolated and cracked down on the communists and the Muslim Brotherhood, and functioned as a modernizing dictator backed by the army. Among those whom in due course he had executed was Sayyed Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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In effect, Nasser’s Egypt was a modern Mameluk state. When he died in 1970, his close friend, fellow army officer, longtime associate, and vice-president Anwar El-Sadat succeeded him, and when Sadat, who had negotiated a peace treaty with Israel, was assassinated by Muslim extremists in 1981, Hosni Mubarak, a former Air Force officer then serving as his vice-president, succeeded him in turn. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Mubarak, who was born in 1928, is 82 and in bad health, and, of course, now he is beleaguered. Events are moving at a rapid pace.

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What I can say with confidence is this. The world that existed in Egypt in 1955 is now gone. Middle-class Egyptian women are far less likely to dress in Western garb now than then, and with every passing year the Muslim Brotherhood grows in influence.

Nasser, who was wildly popular by the end of his life, brought his country defeat in war and economic stagnation. After the peace with Israel, his successors did better in the economic sphere – in recent years the Egyptian economy has grown by leaps and bounds – but they did not satisfy the longings of the people. And what can be said in their regard can be said concerning Arab nationalism as a force. As I wrote in a post on Powerline  not long after I paid a visit to Jerusalem in December, 2009,

Arab nationalism has run its course. The hopes inspired by Gamaliel Abdel Nasser in and after the 1950s, those inspired by the Baathists in Iraq and Syria and by the Palestinian Liberation Organization have come to naught. Opportunistic young men on the make may attempt to sidle up to those in power in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and the West Bank, but these regimes attract no young idealists. Even in Turkey, secular nationalism seems to be on its last legs, and the only politicians who inspire enthusiasm are those who say, “Islam is the answer.”

What this will mean down the road is a subject that inspires a great deal of rumination in Israel these days. It can easily be foreseen that Islam will not provide a suitable answer to the political, social, and economic crises that grip the Arab world, but it will take another cycle of history for that to become adequately evident to a people now disillusioned with secular nationalism.

If there is an alternative to Islamic revivalism on the horizon, it is to be found in Iraq. The simple fact that there are free elections in that country, that there is open debate, and that it is drifting in the direction of genuine prosperity — this stirs dissatisfaction of an entirely different sort in the Arab world — and, as is abundantly evident in Iran, it does so in the larger Muslim world as well.

As time passes and the dust settles, George W. Bush may come to look more and more like a hero — both in the Arab world and here in the United States. For, if the Iraqis remain steadfast and succeed, it is to their example that those fed up with Islamic revivalism will look, and it will be remembered just how adamant the second Bush was in his support for the democratic aspirations of the Iraqi people.

I would like to end this post on a positive note, but I cannot. My guess is that the current uprising will eventuate in a military takeover — and not in the emergence of a liberal democratic state. When I was in Cairo, in the downtown area there were busloads of soldiers everywhere.

My further guess is that, over the next few years, the country will drift in an Islamic revivalist direction. We should certainly not vest our hopes in Mohammed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner though he may be. As Caroline Glick explains on her blog, when he ran the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, he did everything that he could to cover for the Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons, and he is a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt and in the Middle East more generally, we are witnessing the end of an era.

  1. Kenneth

    Great post, Professor.  Very lucid.

    I think what’s happening in Egypt – and Turkey – is similar to the axiom that any organization that does not start out as firmly right-wing will drift inexorably to the left.

    Any Muslim nation that is not firmly secular in its political arrangements will drift towards Islamism. 

    And that means, basically, all Muslim nations.

  2. Walrus

    Excellent post, I am more upbeat about the prospects for a positive outcome than Professor Rahe. I don’t think that the fall of the regime in Egypt necessarily means another Revolutionary Islamic state. The more likely outcome is a state that looks a lot like Iraq. Iraq is chaotic and dysfunctional but it is also more open and representative than the other regimes in the region.  Iraq as a model is a compromise of sorts in the region. It obviously isn’t the full and peaceful pluralist and secular democracy that the US intended to install after the fall of Saddam. At the same time it is a better alternative for governance than the other regimes in the region and the citizens of these regimes know it.

  3. Kenneth
    E Andy Eccleston: Excellent post, I am more upbeat about the prospects for a positive outcome than Professor Rahe. I don’t think that the fall of the regime in Egypt necessarily means another Revolutionary Islamic state. The more likely outcome is a state that looks a lot like Iraq. Iraq is chaotic and dysfunctional but it is also more open and representative than the other regimes in the region.  Iraq as a model is a compromise of sorts in the region. It obviously isn’t the full and peaceful pluralist and secular democracy that the US intended to install after the fall of Saddam. At the same time it is a better alternative for governance than the other regimes in the region and the citizens of these regimes know it. · Jan 29 at 1:44pm

    No comparison.  Iraq is a nascent democracy devised, installed and propped up by the United States. 

    Egypt is beyond our effective influence.

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Kenneth

    E Andy Eccleston: Excellent post, I am more upbeat about the prospects for a positive outcome than Professor Rahe. I don’t think that the fall of the regime in Egypt necessarily means another Revolutionary Islamic state. The more likely outcome is a state that looks a lot like Iraq. Iraq is chaotic and dysfunctional but it is also more open and representative than the other regimes in the region.  Iraq as a model is a compromise of sorts in the region. It obviously isn’t the full and peaceful pluralist and secular democracy that the US intended to install after the fall of Saddam. At the same time it is a better alternative for governance than the other regimes in the region and the citizens of these regimes know it. · Jan 29 at 1:44pm

    No comparison.  Iraq is a nascent democracy devised, installed and propped up by the United States. 

    Egypt is beyond our effective influence. · Jan 29 at 1:54pm

    I agree with Kenneth. We and our enemies tend greatly to overestimate our leverage. Events in Egypt are being driven by local concerns. We are no more than spectators.

  5. Kenneth
    Paul A. Rahe

    Kenneth

    No comparison.  Iraq is a nascent democracy devised, installed and propped up by the United States. 

    Egypt is beyond our effective influence. · Jan 29 at 1:54pm

    I agree with Kenneth. We and our enemies tend greatly to overestimate our leverage. Events in Egypt are being driven by local concerns. We are no more than spectators. · Jan 29 at 2:00pm

    Which is why I am not rushing to criticize the Obama administration for not jumping into this with both feet.  Spectators can’t – and shouldn’t – determine outcomes.

    Every time we try to usher an authoritarian regime off the stage in the name of human rights, we risk ushering in something much worse; like an Iranian theocracy or an Egypt in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.

  6. Walrus
    Kenneth

    No comparison.  Iraq is a nascent democracy devised, installed and propped up by the United States. 

    Egypt is beyond our effective influence. · Jan 29 at 1:54pm

    Egypt is indeed beyond our influence but it isn’t beyond the influence of ideas and events in the region. A post Mubarak regime is more likely to look like Iraq or Turkey rather than Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia. Not without its problems but quite likely pragmatic and more representative and legitimate in the eyes of its citizens.  

  7. Kenneth
    E Andy Eccleston

    Kenneth

    No comparison.  Iraq is a nascent democracy devised, installed and propped up by the United States. 

    Egypt is beyond our effective influence. · Jan 29 at 1:54pm

    Egypt is indeed beyond our influence but it isn’t beyond the influence of ideas and events in the region. A post Mubarak regime is more likely to look like Iraq or Turkey rather than Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia. Not without its problems but quite likely pragmatic and more representative and legitimate in the eyes of its citizens.   · Jan 29 at 2:08pm

    The “ideas and events” in the region are of a strongly Islamist bent.  And there is no evidence of any organized political movement in Egypt that could fill a post-Mubarak vacuum, other than the Muslim Brotherhood.  

  8. Walrus
    Paul A. Rahe

    I agree with Kenneth. We and our enemies tend greatly to overestimate our leverage. Events in Egypt are being driven by local concerns. We are no more than spectators. · Jan 29 at 2:00pm

    It is difficult to argue that we are merely spectators in the events going on in Egypt. Egypt is a longtime ally that we rely heavily on for their help with counter-terrorism. Many of the targets of counter-terrorism are Islamist groups that threaten the regime and the US, some of these are the same groups that are in the street right now. We also send large amounts of  foreign aide to Mubarak and are widely believed to be propping up the regime. Silence can legitimately be viewed as support by the US for any actions the Mubarak regime takes. 

  9. Walrus
    Kenneth

    The “ideas and events” in the region are of a strongly Islamist bent.  And there is no evidence of any organized political movement in Egypt that could fill a post-Mubarak vacuum, other than the Muslim Brotherhood.   · Jan 29 at 2:18pm

    There is no question that a post Mubarak regime will have an Islamist bent to its policy. The question is what does that mean? Iraq, Turkey and Iran are all countries that have an Islamist program. Of these countries only Iran is a real threat to US interests in the region. Islamist groups have been the natural opposition in the Middle East for decades. It is only a matter of time before the Islamist model is tried in a Sunni context. A Egypt with a more Islamist bent isn’t necessarily a threat or problem for the US.

  10. Kenneth
    E Andy Eccleston

    Paul A. Rahe

    I agree with Kenneth. We and our enemies tend greatly to overestimate our leverage. Events in Egypt are being driven by local concerns. We are no more than spectators. · Jan 29 at 2:00pm

    It is difficult to argue that we are merely spectators in the events going on in Egypt. Egypt is a longtime ally that we rely heavily on for their help with counter-terrorism. Many of the targets of counter-terrorism are Islamist groups that threaten the regime and the US, some of these are the same groups that are in the street right now. We also send large amounts of  foreign aide to Mubarak and are widely believed to be propping up the regime. Silence can legitimately be viewed as support by the US for any actions the Mubarak regime takes.  · Jan 29 at 2:19pm

    Egypt is no ally.  It’s simply a client state, being bought off for signing a peace treaty with Israel. 

    Public opinion in Egypt is strongly anti-American – and that opinion isn’t based upon our “support” for Mubarak, it’s based upon a belief that we seek hegemony in the region.

  11. Kenneth
    E Andy Eccleston

    Kenneth

    The “ideas and events” in the region are of a strongly Islamist bent.  And there is no evidence of any organized political movement in Egypt that could fill a post-Mubarak vacuum, other than the Muslim Brotherhood.   · Jan 29 at 2:18pm

    There is no question that a post Mubarak regime will have an Islamist bent to its policy. The question is what does that mean? Iraq, Turkey and Iran are all countries that have an Islamist program. Of these countries only Iran is a real threat to US interests in the region. Islamist groups have been the natural opposition in the Middle East for decades. It is only a matter of time before the Islamist model is tried in a Sunni context. A Egypt with a more Islamist bent isn’t necessarily a threat or problem for the US. · Jan 29 at 2:29pm

    Yeah, and Mohammed Atta is currently engaging in the peaceful practice of engineering. 

  12. Pseudodionysius

    I agree with Kenneth. We and our enemies tend greatly to overestimate our leverage. Events in Egypt are being driven by local concerns. We are no more than spectators.

    But surely Paul that doesn’t force us to be silent does it? Even if all it can accomplish is to give hope to desperate expatriates fleeing to the US shores for a better life then staying where they are, we’ve accomplished something haven’t we?

  13. Kenneth
    Pseudodionysius: I agree with Kenneth. We and our enemies tend greatly to overestimate our leverage. Events in Egypt are being driven by local concerns. We are no more than spectators.

    But surely Paul that doesn’t force us to be silent does it? Even if all it can accomplish is to give hope to desperate expatriates fleeing to the US shores for a better life then staying where they are, we’ve accomplished something haven’t we? · Jan 29 at 2:51pm

    Accomplished something for whom? 

    Honestly, I don’t much care about the Egyptian people.  They hate us, anyway.  I care about American interests.  And if having Mubarak keep the lid on the rise of Islamism in the biggest Arab country serves our interests, then I say shut up and let him crack down. 

  14. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Pseudodionysius: I agree with Kenneth. We and our enemies tend greatly to overestimate our leverage. Events in Egypt are being driven by local concerns. We are no more than spectators.

    But surely Paul that doesn’t force us to be silent does it? Even if all it can accomplish is to give hope to desperate expatriates fleeing to the US shores for a better life then staying where they are, we’ve accomplished something haven’t we? · Jan 29 at 2:51pm

    We do not have to be silent, but I think that it is incumbent on us to be prudent. Mubarak is no great shakes, but he has honored the peace treaty with Israel, he has cooperated with us, and he has overseen considerable economic growth. The most likely alternative, if the army does not take over, is apt to be worse. It is good to remember the Shah of Iran — who was far less bad than the regime that succeeded his. My view is that we should keep our powder dry. If necessary, we should encourage the military to see to Mubarak’s retirement. We could do far worse than his new vice-president.

  15. katievs

    Does anyone have an informed opinion on ElBaradei–his role in this drama?  

  16. Kenneth
    katievs: Does anyone have an informed opinion on ElBaradei–his role in this drama?   · Jan 29 at 3:11pm

    ElBaradei unquestionably was complicit in a ruse to protect Iran’s nuclear-weapons program from international scrutiny and was, allegedly, paid very handsomely by the Iranians for his efforts. 

    The man is a viper, in league with Iran, who flew to Cairo as soon as the riots broke out, hoping to step into Mubarak’s shoes.

  17. Walrus

    The United States has been supporting unpopular regimes in the Middle East for decades. At first the US did this out of a fear that USSR would make a client out of any regime that wasn’t in the American camp. Fear of the Soviets was why CIA overthrew Iran’s popular government and installed the Shah. Later it was the fear of Islamists like the Revolutionaries who overthrew the Shah that caused the US to support unpopular regimes. Al Qaeda targeted the US because it viewed the US as the puppet master who supported and controlled the unpopular regimes of the Middle East. They struck America as a way to bring down their unpopular regimes at home. After 9-11 the US supported the unpopular regimes of the Middle East for their assistance with US counter-terrorism measures. Mubarak’s regime has argued that while their regime is bad a regime with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge would be even worse. Out of fear the US has continued its support for unpopular regimes. Rightly or wrongly Bush tried to cut this Gordian knot of US support for unpopular regimes by installing a genuine democracy in the Middle East.

  18. Pseudodionysius

    We could do far worse than his new vice-president.

    Fascinating point, though I wonder if all these arrangements with non democratic regimes do is buy us a few decades until the inevitable clash of civilizations occurs. And, as always, I wonder what Putin is up to at this very moment.

  19. Pseudodionysius

    I also think Mubarak gross underestimated the power of the internet and handhelds to fuel these uprisings. Its tempting to say “that’s what the ballot box is for” but I know that’s wishful thinking.

  20. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Pseudodionysius: We could do far worse than his new vice-president.

    Fascinating point, though I wonder if all these arrangements with non democratic regimes do is buy us a few decades until the inevitable clash of civilizations occurs. And, as always, I wonder what Putin is up to at this very moment. · Jan 29 at 3:26pm

    Buying time is better than not buying time. Sometimes when one buys time, the problem goes away. Of course, sometimes it gets worse. Just as you cannot beat someone with no one, so you cannot beat the Muslim Brotherhood with a nonexistent bourgeois liberal party.