Observations on the Chaos in Egypt

As we enter day seven of the chaotic protests in Egypt, there are, I think, only two options for the endgame:

1. The end of the Mubarak regime and a real change of government, or
2. A crackdown ala Tiananmen Square that sees Mubarak and his government survive, followed by no immediate change in government policy.

This is not necessarily the death throes of the Egyptian government, as Robert Fisk has put it. Mubarak could still survive with a massive crackdown. But I think the results are polar, and I don’t think that Mubarak’s government can survive intact under this type of massive public pressure if it agrees to major reforms. Or to quote the 19th century observation of Tocqueville:

The most dangerous moment for an evil government is when it begins to reform itself… the sufferings that are endured patiently as being inevitable, become intolerable the moment it appears that there might be an escape. Reform then only serves to reveal more clearly what still remains oppressive and now all the more unbearable.

What can we say if the Mubarak regime falls? Many would say it is a welcome development. That a corrupt and oppressive sham government should fall and be replaced by something more sensible is surely good news. But here are my concerns:
* Egypt’s current government is secular and based on its Arab Nationalist origins. A replacement government could be fundamentalist and dangerous to many countries in the region.
* Egypt’s Christians, a sizable minority of the 80 million or so people in Egypt, have been under increasing pressure and the target of attacks in recent years.
* Egypt fundamentally recognizes Israel and has an open border with the state.

Even if a new government is not Islamist or fundamentalist, local Christians and Israel could both be easy targets in a new government that needs to increase its popularity when the public realizes that a new government cannot provide easy fixes. That is possibly the greatest danger in a change of power to a new regime.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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13 Responses to Observations on the Chaos in Egypt

  1. Lu Shin Wong says:

    I wonder if one can take the view that if the current autocratic government is replaced by a fundamentalist religious one, then this is not necessarily a bad thing. (not because I endorse or agree with such a regime, nor do it think it likely since the protests have so far been for secular economic reasons)
    The reason I say this is because I think it is important to uphold a basic democratic principle: If the population is unhappy with its government, it must be allowed to change it, even if the next government may be even worse. After all, if this is the case then they can change that too.
    If this princple cannot be upheld then the alternative is that governments, no matter how dictatorial, cannot be changed by the will of the populace. I am not sure if this is a message that many would find palatable, at least in the developed world. If nothing else, this leads to govenments that are unaccountable and corrupt.
    No doubt if such a fundamentalist regime ala Iran were to come to power (again I think this unlikely), there would be major international ramifications. The question is, would such consequences be worth the price of democracy?

  2. M Brueschke says:

    The threat to Israel from a conventional Egypt is minimal.

    While Egypt has advanced armor and aviation assets from the US, and I’ll argue that an M-1A1 can take a Merkava III or IV any day of the week, Egypt hasn’t fought a war since 1973. What martial tradition they had in the officer, cadet and NCO corps is gone.

    The Sinai is big and they can’t just roll across the Suez without triggering an international incident with the US and UN, so they’d have to pull out of the Camp David Accords giving Israel time to go on the defensive and should Egypt attack Israel, the Israeli Air Force would turn tank columns into burning piles of depleted Uranium.

    A couple years of opposing the US would lead to the US pulling military aid and Egypt is more dependent on spare parts from the US than Iran was 32 years ago, Egypt already has service issues with the M-1A1 and F-16, imagine that magnified by no spares and no technical support.

  3. Brand X says:

    Who knew that throwing off a corrupt dictator would be a bad thing? Spoken like a true imperialist: Democracy is fine as along as I approve of it.

    Franky, I have seen no evidence of any fundamentalist movement poised to take power. This has been a grassroots uprising, organized initially through Facebook, but supported by society at large. It doesn’t look like the military will turn its guns on the people.

    I agree with Fisk. This is the death throes of the Mubarak government. He has lost all legitimacy. If he does order a crackdown and ends up killing a lot of people, that will only ensure his own grisly death at the hands of the public. His only choice is to leave.

  4. The USA is going to cut and run from its long-time client, and will not agree to a hardcore, Tiananmen style crackdown. It is identical to the situation in 1979. Carter refused to back the Shah, who we had propped up for decades, and the moment that the tanks could have been sent into the street to shoot at civilian protesters came and went. Carter placed a bet that the Iranians, the USA and the world would be better off with the USA’s client and stooge gone, apparently thinking Iranians would forgive and forget the decades of support for the tyrant. Obama is about to get handed the overdue bill for decades of US policy in Egypt. If you kick the can down the road eventually you run out of road. The Tiananmen moment is gone, by the look of things. Mubarak is kaput. Whether Egypt will find some superior path, or quickly sink far below the stagnant despotism of Mubarak cannot be known. I have no hope for it, however. Probably: The Copts are doomed and will be the new Bosnians, but as Christian victims of Muslims will get no sympathy in the West. Probably: The Egyptian army will not send tanks across the Sinai, but Egypt will become a base for terrorism against Israel and the West and the Saudi and Jordanian regimes. Probably: The Egyptian people will be much worse off in a year or two than they are now.

    I devoutly hope I am wrong about all this.

  5. Curzon says:

    Brueschke, two points — first, Egypt poses a major threat even without a strong military as just by being confrontational it creates a two-front concern for an Israel confronting Lebanon and Syria. And combined with any other military such as KSA or Syria, there could be real problems for Israel — and Israel is saying as much itself. Second, they could open up the closed borders with Gaza and cause a real headache for Israel.

    Brand X — I think you’re assuming an awful lot about Mubarak’s fragility. There’s just too much we don’t know yet. Let’s see…

  6. Oliver says:

    It seems to me that the discontent in North Africa is mainly fueled by economic conditions. Economic growth cannot keep up with a youth bulge. What is a democratic government supposed to do so much better so that the disadvantaged young men get a chance in life?

    And if it fails, then what?

  7. M Brueschke says:

    Egypt as an militarily aggressive power once more still has threats on the Libyan and Sudanese frontiers, so pushing hard against Israel even with Syria or the KSA isn’t completely without risk.

    Mubarak is done, I predict that he is gone by the first of March at the latest. Heck he might be gone by this time tomorrow.

    The real question is will Egypt go the secular reform and rebuilding route or will they go nationalist/Islamic and make trouble in the region?

    Israel at the very least is going to have to back off the religious expansion route which will enrage Egypt no matter how they go and return to secular Zionism to protect Israel as a nation.

    How far will this go? Is Syria next? Jordan?

  8. spandrell says:

    Let it burn I say. Come on, it had to happen sooner or later. You can’t have 80 million people in Egypt, its not sustainable. The whole middle east is gonna blow up, I say better sooner than later. At least people will understand the threat Islam is for civilization.

  9. Ralph Hitchens says:

    The photo of the woman handing her baby to a soldier in an APC pretty much settled it for me. No Tienanmen Square in Egypt, for sure. Mubarak is toast.

  10. Curzon says:

    Had dinner with a Middle East analyst at a leading risk consulting firm. His prediction: Mubarak is finished, the military will take over and lead the new government, and this is all going down in the next few days, by “next Friday at the absolute latest.” Let’s see if he’s right.

  11. M Brueschke says:

    Who would have thought we’d see a cavalry charge in the middle of 21st century Cairo?

    Mubarak might make it till the middle of the month at this rate, but in spite of the damage done on the 2nd and 3rd he is done, President Obama is looking Carteresque in the response to the changes on the ground, here is hoping he doesn’t lose Egypt like Carter lost Iran.

    Yemen has almost already changed, is Syria next? Heck could the left and center left do this to the right wing in Israel over the settlements?

  12. Wataru says:

    The fears you have about post-Mubarak Egypt are real, but they are still not as bad as the dangers the US *ignored* when overthrowing Iraq’s government and unleashing all the forces for long-term instability, not to mention putting Iraq’s Christians in a bad position. This time, though, the changes are not being imposed from without, and the US and other outsiders are pretty much helpless to steer them in any case.

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