Back to the Future for Egypt: They Have Returned to the 1950s

I’ve been skeptical about emerging democracies in the Middle East in general but Egypt in particular. There have been a few positive signs here and there and that is encouraging. Last week’s post was devoted to REAL democracies and, if I do say so myself, was a pretty convincing comparison of what even rudimentary democracies should look like and how places like Egypt do not measure up.

But I thought Walter Russell Mead’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the failure of our grand plans in the Middle East was particularly insightful. You can find the article here. In fact, I thought his main point about what actually happened with the takedown of Mubarak was so convincing that my dose of depression about Egypt’s supposed emerging democracy is on the increase. And although I’m not convinced of each point made by Mead, his analysis of the relationship between the military and the government is spot on. The military is a privileged organization in Egyptian society. The military leadership is an elitist segment of the society that garners significant benefits and perks, which they are not about to give up easily. Some of the strongest and most accomplished leaders in Egypt are military, and they move easily between the military and the civilian government. The military is highly integrated into Egyptian politics and considers itself the dominant and most important state institution.

It turns out, according to Mead, that Mubarak was trying to arrange for his son to be his successor and avoid altogether the military’s role in choosing a future leader. This would have turned Egypt into a family dynasty rather than a military republic. The military leadership was having none of this and was involved in fighting back partially by creating unrest. The military touted their democratic credentials by standing back and letting protest movements challenge Mubarak until he fell. They then stepped in and restored peace and quite skillfully played the father-protector role. Even though the military is more powerful than the Muslim Brotherhood, they accepted the appointment of Morsi initially believing they could manage him. When Morsi turned out to be less than competent and failed to understand his role the military removed him. Again, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood credentials worked to his disadvantage since both the military and the general population is suspicious of the Brotherhood.

So, what do we have now! We have the Egypt in the 1950s. Egypt is a military republic that has come full circle and made no progress toward democracy. Mead continues to explain that the population assumes that only the military can protect them from the Islamists and hence maintain a sympathetic attitude toward the military. The other two forces in society – liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood – are fluttering in the background incapable of doing much.

Both Mubarak and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are on trial which I presume will justify military political goals. Mubarak, who is from the military, was sentenced to life imprisonment but a retrial was ordered. This will allow the military to remove Mubarak but pay their debts to one of their own. The military has skillfully deposed Mubarak and appeased the population who would have revolted had they watched him walk away free, but the military will ensure that Mubarak’s final days are quiet and in the background.

Egypt is an important culture and strategic ally of the United States. A couple of years ago there was great hope and optimism for enlightened progress in Egypt. But such hope and optimism are waning. We have to sit back for a while and let Egypt stabilize before altering our foreign-policy stance. But we can’t sit back for too long because issues related to Iran, the peace treaty with Israel, Islamism, terrorism, and various strategic interests await us.

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Posted on August 26, 2013, in Democracy, Political Conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Back to the Future for Egypt: They Have Returned to the 1950s.

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