Egypt, continued

Since the shit hitting the fan in Egypt looks like the story of the day, I thought it would be good to talk about it a bit more, and in particular to respond to thoughts such as this one that, at least intuitively, protests against a dictatorship are a Good Thing, and to follow up on why I was voicing concerns in yesterday’s post.

The short version of what’s happening: after 30 years of dictatorship by Mubarak (which, in turn, followed ten years of dictatorship by Sadat, twenty by Nasser, etc.), there’s large-scale rioting in the streets of Cairo, the army has been called in, and there are good odds that the government will fall. Underpinning this is extreme poverty; Cairo’s population has grown by about 10M over the past decade, mostly in the form of enormous shantytowns without even basic services, and this was happening because conditions in the rest of the country were even worse. The government kept the situation under control by a combination of political repression and cheap bread. (The bread subsidy is the largest line-item in the national budget, and depends on wheat imported from Russia, which may be related to the current trouble) But things have been steadily deteriorating; there have been a few abortive “elections” in the past few years, each reduced to a charade when candidates deemed unacceptable to the regime were removed from the ballot en masse, when military and paramilitary forces were called in to intimidate voters, etc. It’s been pretty clearly a matter of time until things went straight to hell there.

To explain the significance, though, you should note that Egypt is the most populous Arab country* and is the “cultural center” of the Arab world — this is where all major media (movies, music, TV) emerges from, it’s the place that people look to as a bellwether, etc.  So events here are important.

The other thing you should know is about the opposition. Probably the most important force is an underground organization called the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 as an anti-monarchist movement. They’re the granddaddy of all Arab and Muslim revolutionary movements, combining the two with their ideas of establishing a religious government over the entire Arab world. When they spread out of Egypt over the 20th century, they set up branch operations in a host of other Arab countries, which ultimately turned into more familiar modern names — the PLO, Hamas, Hizb ut-Tahrir, etc. While they are ostensibly banned in Egypt, their power has been growing considerably over the past few years; they made a particular movement over the past decade to deeply take over the judiciary. And NB that this is an Islamic fundamentalist movement, not a pro-democracy reform movement — their core aim is to restore Islam, establish the Sharia as the law of the land, and to use “physical power and Jihad” to abolish the existing Arab political systems, which they consider part of the jahiliya, and replace them with their own vision.

So back to the original question: Isn’t dictatorship a bad thing? Isn’t overthrowing a dictatorship a good thing?

My answers are yes and sometimes, respectively. The problem isn’t in the overthrowing of dictatorships; it’s in what follows them. If you look at the transition of the Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were large, existing movements (such as Solidarity in Poland) who had a clear vision for what they wanted to replace Communist rule with — in this case, representative democracy and free enterprise — and there was broad public support behind such changes. As soon as the government was weak enough to topple, it did, and the transition of power could happen smoothly. (Consider that Lech Walesa was out there calling for elections, and with a plan in hand, the day after the Wall fell.)

But the protests in Egypt right now don’t seem to be so much protests for any particular form of government, as protests against the existing one. When revolutions like this happen, you end up with a power vacuum, and who comes out on top is basically whoever was in the best position to exploit that. In Tunisia, it looks like it’s going to be some combination of the Army and the security forces. In Egypt, it’s a bit hard to tell who will come out on top, but I’m noting that if the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong operational organization right now, they could easily be the winners. And that is likely to be considerably worse than Mubarak.

The problem is basically that, while Mubarak is a dictator, brutally suppresses dissent, encourages corruption, and so on, that’s actually the mildest form of dictatorship.** If you ask yourself “how could it be any worse,” a gander around the Middle East or North Africa can provide you with a wide range of interesting examples. And in the meantime, there’s likely to be a whole lot of violence. The size of the Christian population of Egypt, for example, is a closely guarded government secret***, but is estimated by outsiders to be about 10% of the population. If the government collapses and militant Islamic fundamentalists are trying to take over on a locality-by-locality basis, for example, what do you think is likely to happen there? (The Jewish population is safe because there is no Jewish population. They were all exiled and/or killed by Nasser in ’56)

So my concern is that overthrowing a dictator, and letting whoever can grab the most in a power vacuum take over, is a sure way to make things considerably worse than they are. This is likely to lead to a bloody period for Egypt, and if it spreads further — which I think it might — a bloody period across the entire Middle East.

This revolution is not likely to be a good thing.

* NB, not the most populous Muslim country, which is Indonesia, or the country with the greatest Muslim population, which is India. This is an Arab issue, not a religious one, although the two are related.

** Which fact is basically why dictatorships are so bad.

*** They really don’t want people to know this number.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 12:51  Comments (15)  


  1. I had a thought about the economics of the situation as well. One of Egypt’s top sources of revenue (I think it was #2, but I’m not completely sure) is tourism. If there is a long drawn-out conflict in the country, and/or if the gov’t changes over to a dictatorship less benevolent towards tourism, this could have very real economic implications for an already poor country.

    And, when one considers that because of the big Soviet-built dam, the desert is spreading – leading to less and less fertile land – then Egypt is going to need as much funding as possible more than ever, either to increase the bread subsidy or to make efforts to beat back the desert (either by taking down the dam, which would take away a main source of electrical power but allow the Nile to resume its annual flood, or by doing something similar to what Israel has been doing for the past sixty years or so to reclaim desert land).

    • Ugh. You’re right, I hadn’t been thinking about the tourism aspect… that’s going to suck badly, too. Pretty much all of Egypt’s income is tourism and the Suez Canal.

      Another dam thought (just one dam thing after another, today…) is that the dam is in an awfully remote part of the country. I’m guessing that it’s fairly immune to popular uprisings because of being in the ass-end of the universe, but what would the consequences be if the government could no longer control or operate the dam? I don’t know how much day-to-day maintenance the thing actually requires, but it could be a source of trouble. (And it’s fairly close to the Sudanese border, too, which could lead to some real surprises if Egypt’s army were ever seen as easy pickings…)

      • The canal is in a remote part of the country and is guarded like a military installation.

        The Aswan region where the dam is located has a population about the size of San Jose; a popular uprising could easily take it over, but i’m not sure what that would accomplish.

        • Yeah. And that population is spread out over a fairly large area. I doubt that it’s a likely target for any popular uprisings, but if the country were to politically dissociate it could be a tempting target for local governors/warlords/whatever.

    • I will venture my opinion on the bit where I am less ill-informed, having done a little reading in books like Cradle to Cradle and Plan B. They should find another source of power and rip down the dam. Being able to grow their own food again, maybe export some, could be a very good thing for the country, seeing how most of their neighbours need to import grain and will need to import more in future. There is plenty of desert in which to set up solar panels to make up for the dam.

      • Yeah, I think so too… but I wouldn’t bet any money on them ever doing it. They’ll turn the whole country into a desert first.

  2. That’s a great point about how Russia flexing its export muscles might have been a direct catalyst for the current unrest. I hadn’t put two and two together, but the shoe fits.

    While I’m hardly one to blindly follow my government without expressing frustration from time to time, there seems to be little thought being given by observers as to why the U.S. has been willing to support a dictatorship in Egypt for the past 30 years. Still, in light of the current situation, can the PotUS still afford to be seen as propping up the Mubarak regime against the will of the people?

    • Probably not, but I doubt we’ll actively call for his ouster unless it’s already a fait accompli. My guess is that we’ll already be keeping an eye on potential successors and thinking about how best to deal with them.

      I’m just hoping that any of the successors are decent. If el-Baradei somehow ends up in power, he’ll probably be good, but I don’t know if he’ll have the muscle to hold things together. Mubarak just named his chief of security as VP, so that’s probably a hint as to who he wants to take over — somehow I doubt that’s going to go well. And I’m not sure who the MB would put into power, but I suspect that would go worst of all.

  3. I really should be reading your blog more often, Yonatan. I always like reading what you have to say about politics, especially in the Middle East, even if I don’t always agree.

    I don’t know much about Tunisia, and not much more about Egypt — I’ve never been there, but I know some Egyptian immigrants, both recent and not. Beyond that, mostly what I know is what’s in the American press.

    I have heard from people who have been there recently that Egypt has been seeing a rise in fundamentalism Islam in the past few years, including inside the government. So I am not surprised to hear that the revolution has strong fundamentalist links.

    From what little I know, though, it doesn’t seem clear to me that the revolution in progress right now is likely to be successful. If it isn’t successful, it may not have the problems you describe. Could be that in the aftermath, the country is in the hands of a shakier Mubarak regime. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

  4. There is no fear at all of the upcoming change in Egypt the Arabs learned the lesson of not giving their destiny to one man this is in the benefits of THE WESTERN WORLD

  5. What we are witnessing is the next generation of world war, waged on social networks and through PR machines.

    If this means fewer casualties of war (besides the truth) then it might be something to be applauded.

    Whenever we stop talking, suppress communication, violence wins.

  6. […] good news from Egypt What with all of my earlier warnings about the ways in which things could go catastrophically wrong in Egypt, it was good to […]

  7. I pretty much agree with everything you said. It presents quite a dilemma for American foreign policy and I have every confidence that this administration will make matters worse. Any coalition with the Muslim brotherhood will end up being dominated by them. On the other hand the status quo for the Egyptian population is untenable. All along the U.S. should have promoted democratic reform but at the same time made it clear that without the separtion of church and state democracy is a sham. Once sharia law is imposed the game is over.

  8. I was listening to NPR today, talking about Egypt.

    On NPR, they claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has made a public declaration against violence, and mostly gone pretty moderate and secular, primarily promoting a fairly decent agenda of democracy. However, according to the same NPR show, the Muslim Brother is also pretty anti-US and anti-Israel, at least compared to Mubarak, so there could be other problems on an international level.

  9. […] when I said the protests in Egypt could turn out very, very badly for the Middle East as a whole? I really wasn’t […]

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