The potentially bad news from Egypt

This is the companion post to the one from a few days ago on how things could go well in Egypt — given the changes of the past few days, it’s worth taking a look at how things could go badly in Egypt as well. I should say that at this point I’m not betting either way; but it’s worth seeing the factors which are pointing in each of the various directions in order to try to imagine what the future could look like.

So what are features which militate against a happy outcome? Largely, they’re forces which would encourage either mass violence or dictatorship.  And there are a few significant ones.

One of the biggest threats for violence happens if there’s prolonged uncertainty about government, a de facto power vacuum. This seems to have started to set in; the past week’s relatively peaceful protests have turned violent, with an apparently organized group of pro-Mubarak demonstrators riding in to Tahrir square yesterday. One of my first question is who these Mubarak supporters are; I wasn’t under the impression that he had a sufficient street-level power base remaining, and his support came more from those in power. I think that we’ve started to hit a critical point; if there isn’t a transition to a new government within a few days — which looks increasingly unlikely, as Mubarak seems determined to hold on to power — violence will rise to much higher levels. The possibility of a “velvet revolution” will pretty much go out the window.

If violence kicks in, the biggest risk is always if it will expose deeper underlying rifts. (e.g., between Muslims and Christians, or between city Arabs and Bedouin, or between various tribes with long-standing grudges) Once exposed, such things have a tendency to persist, and if large enough groups get involved either pogroms or long-lasting civil wars become a possibility. The latter could lead to Egypt becoming unstable in the long term.

If this is somehow mitigated or averted, any delayed power transfer (such as Mubarak’s proposal that he serve out his term and a new election be held in September) increases the odds of dictatorship. A long run-up to handover gives everyone a chance to organize, but the people best able to capitalize on that are what you might politely call Unsavory Elements: people who have become powerful under Mubarak’s rule, key members of the security services, provincial governors who are real sons of bitches, the Muslim Brotherhood. Even in a perfectly fair election it’s quite possible that anti-democratic forces will quickly seize power; but if people like provincial governors are in play, the odds of a fair election start to go down considerably. (I would keep an eye in particular on people like Samir Farag, the governor of Luxor province. He’s smelled to me for a while like someone getting ready to make a bigger power play)

Now with that said, let’s look at the longer-term consequences of transition in Egypt. I think that the biggest thing to remember is that Egypt is seen by the Arab world as a powerful bellwether, and anything that happens there is likely to be emulated far and wide. It serves as the western counterweight to Iran, who is trying to spread its influence as far as possible through the Islamic world, often through puppet organizations and fifth columns. Egypt hasn’t been installing friendly regimes so much as providing the huge economic and military backstop to vaguely secular dictatorships; the Saudis have in effect been their partners in this, providing the cash backing. (NB the difference: Egypt and the Saudis are backing dictatorships who favor some sort of stability, and bankrolling radical religious elements to stay quiet, whereas Iran backs those radical elements into taking power themselves, and sets up revolutionary Islamist dictatorships. Don’t you love the Middle East?)

If a genuine democracy were to emerge from this week’s events, the consequences could be profound. I would guess that several countries would feel immediate pressure to follow suit — Jordan, Yemen and Oman first, perhaps. The more powerful monarchies or oligarchies wouldn’t feel the same impetus, since they’re small enough that their aristocracies are a decent-sized portion of the population, but they would now find themselves operating against the backdrop of democratic neighbors. OTOH, it’s hard to tell who would come into power in such a democracy. Israel fears that it would allow radicals to come to power through the ballot box, as Hamas did a few years ago in the Palestinian Territories. I suspect that the answer would be country-dependent, although one could count on Iran to play KGB-style games and back their parties of choice in every country. In Kuwait (which would probably come under pressure to democratize soon after) this could mean a Shi’ite ascendancy, with uncertain consequences for its foreign and domestic policy, but a real possibility of some Bad Shit to go down. In Egypt, that would probably mean a sharp (further) radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood as its more extreme elements found themselves with greater financial support. So there’s a real possibility for nefarious actors to spread via democracy, but there are also possibilities to mitigate that, especially by backing relatively sane people like el-Baradei with international support.

(And NB that international support shouldn’t simply take the form of cash, military aid, and the like. It has to be support for Egypt being a functional democracy, not for any particular ruler or party, and would most effectively take the form of things like free trade agreements and further pulling Egypt into the broader international community. That helps cement the vested interest that the Egyptian people have in preserving their freedom, by making it also in the interest of those in power to preserve that freedom rather than curtail it to maximize their own longevity in office.)

If a new secular dictatorship emerges, which I think is unlikely, we’d see a reversion to the status quo ante. If an Islamist dictatorship emerges, the exact effect depends on who is ultimately bankrolling it: a Saudi one would probably be more quiet (but potentially in the long term, an even bigger factory of trouble) than an Iranian one. I would note that such a dictatorship would of necessity be much milder than the Hamas variety, because of the critical importance of tourism to Egypt’s economy; think Saudi Arabia + increased use of medieval law codes rather than Afghanistan. But the hit to Egypt’s economy would be intense nonetheless; fundamentalist regimes generally aren’t great at encouraging large numbers of visitors, or other kinds of large-scale trade and innovation. This could exacerbate existing problems of poverty and food shortages and lead to recurring political instability down the road. One could easily imagine Egypt turning into a much larger, and less stable, version of Jordan in this case. (Economically, that is, not socially) There are other alternatives, of course; e.g., some kind of pan-Islamic “nationalism” leading up to an attempt to form a broader empire of alliances. I can’t imagine this actually working, but it would lead to some spectacular upheavals in the area.

If short-term but intense violence were to occur, the results would be bloody but (alas!) would probably have no more long-term effect than to more deeply cement the tensions already in the region, before proceeding on to one of the other solutions. One crazy wild card could be if significant Muslim-Christian violence would occur; that could cause American Evangelicals to suddenly put sharp pressure on the US government to intervene more directly, even militarily, and all sorts of shit could hit the fan. I’m going to pass over this briefly, not because it isn’t important, but because we presumably all know what this sort of thing looks like. And it’s bad.

If long-term civil violence were to occur, that’s probably the worst result of all. Tribal warfare could make the area dangerous for decades to come, essentially ending tourism and forcing the area to revert to its dwindling agricultural economy. In the long term, geography would rule: Egypt is basically a long, narrow strip of land, with its cities all clustered in the north and the absolutely critical Aswan dam infrastructure in the far south. A handful of key cities such as Luxor sit in between. Cairo and Alexandria would naturally fall into a single political domain; Aswan would naturally fall under the domain of whoever controlled the nearer cities to it, with Luxor probably being the natural base for that. The Sinai peninsula could be under Cairene control, or it could revert to Bedouin control, or Israel could preemptively reoccupy it as a buffer. One could easily see Egypt falling into such a partition in the medium- to long-term; here the problem is that the individual countries would be desperately short on resources and unable to coordinate. Effects such as desertification of the Nile valley would likely accelerate, leading to even worse problems in the long term.

So in conclusion, there are quite a few ways in which the Egypt situation could go extremely wrong at this point. My instinct is that the sooner the situation is resolved, the better for all concerned; a peaceful transition of power is still possible for the next few days, but after that the odds will start to get rapidly worse, and the chances that the ultimate result will be civil war, dictatorship, or mass poverty increase. The fastest way to end this would be for Mubarak to (peacefully!) leave the country; if any such negotiations are going on, as they presumably are, I can only wish them Godspede.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 11:15  Comments Off on The potentially bad news from Egypt  
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