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.

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Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 12:51  Comments (15)  
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Quick Middle East update

No time for a real post today, but just as an FYI: the “cascading trouble” that people have been worrying about for years in the Middle East may have finally started. Tunisia’s dictator was recently overthrown by a popular revolution (although it looks like the military and/or security services may be taking over in the aftermath); but now there are large-scale protests in Egypt, which may be enough to finally topple Mubarak. He’s been using fairly authoritarian measures to prevent this for decades, and the concern has been of a resurgence in Islamist power if the government were to collapse, in the Arab world’s most populous (and culturally influential) country. Now it looks like we’re seeing large-scale instability in Yemen, (which was never really stable to begin with, granted) and Hezbollah seems poised to take over Lebanon. The secession referendum in the Sudan isn’t something I would normally list with Middle East issues, but it does pit the Arab north against the oil-rich African south, and has the risk of spreading instability into southern Egypt and/or Libya, or outwards via the already very-unstable Horn of Africa to reinforce the issues in Yemen, Oman, and maybe even Saudi Arabia.

This entire situation opens the possibility for “rolling revolution” of some sort, especially in areas which have had strongly authoritarian regimes (often ethnic minorities) suppressing the population for a long time. I would mark the entire African Middle East and the Arabian peninsula as being at particularly high risk, with the chance of an Iranian power play during a time of opportunity creating additional risks in the fertile crescent all the way out through Lebanon. This could all fizzle out, or it could turn into a major regional realignment, with existing (total bastard, but at least semi-stable and established) regimes replaced by popular movements run by highly radical organizations.

So: Analysis later, right now just wanted to keep everyone posted.

Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 11:17  Comments (5)  
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Fifteen years.

Today marks fifteen years since the murder of Itzhak Rabin.

I feel that I should say something, but it’s hard to make the words come. Twice in twenty years of a “peace process,” there may have been a real chance at peace; twice, the chance was taken away, once by the angel of death, once by Apollo’s arrows. How did peace become so fragile and evanescent a thing, that such a small action could end even its hope?

I heard about his death on the way home from doing research in the CU library in Boulder, going past NIST. First they said he was shot, and my heart caught. A few sentences later they confirmed he was dead. Then there was that terrifying minute of wondering who had killed him, which side he had come from and what the consequences might be. A mixture of relief and anger when they said it was an Israeli, a right-wing extremist. Relief, because had it been a Palestinian, there would have been nothing that could have stopped a war and a terrifying bloodshed; anger, that one of our own would do this, would try to destroy our last hope for peace. It took days for the consequences to sink in; so many people thought that perhaps now, in honor of his death the peace process would have to go through. I remember hearing an angry settler on the news, cursing Igal Amir for killing him and “giving the peace process, which should have died on its own, the authority of the Angel of Death,” and hoping — but not quite believing — that he was right.

And of course, he wasn’t. Shimon Peres was no Rabin. He couldn’t make his own government move forward in a straight line, much less negotiate a peace. Then Bibi, with his slick lies and nasty populism. By the time Barak was in office and could try for peace, the opportunity had passed; Arafat wasn’t really interested, and the Camp David negotiations went down in flames. It wasn’t until 2005 that there would be a chance again, and then we lost that, too.

Why are the best of us always taken first?

Bill Clinton has a eulogy and remembrance of him in today’s Times. He and Rabin were friends, and there is perhaps no-one better to speak on his behalf today.

שלום, חבר.

Published in: on November 4, 2010 at 10:46  Comments Off on Fifteen years.  
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The Desert Spreads

Interesting news article about spreading droughts in Syria and northern Iraq. This has the ring of permanent desertification due to a combination of climate shifts, increased use of the Euphrates water by Turkey (which is due in part to Turkey’s population growth), and general incompetence and corruption.

The Syrian government doesn’t appear to actually be doing much about it, although the article estimates over 100,000 people have been displaced so far. That’s not entirely surprising; it’s very much Syrian style to consider the problem being if anyone threatens the government, but to not deal with anything prior to that because frankly they have bigger issues.

Long-term, Syria is likely to end up as desertified as Jordan, with an even more thorough population and economy crash; not that it’s got a huge population or economy right now. This may ultimately reduce the likelihood of major conventional wars in the area, but in the short term it creates yet another large, easily radicalized population, and an even further power vacuum into which Iranian agents can easily step.

NB also that this is almost entirely a problem of human making. If you stand at the border of Syria and Israel, it’s shocking to see how the terrain is green on one side, and grayish brown on the other. They don’t even look like part of the same planet.

Published in: on October 13, 2010 at 16:39  Comments Off on The Desert Spreads  
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Wheat and politics

Side note: today Russia banned grain exports for the rest of the year, following droughts and wildfires. Many other countries (with the notable exception of the US) have been having major grain production shortfalls as well.

One country which may be particularly affected by this is Egypt; the government there subsidizes effectively free bread, which is a key factor in maintaining some semblance of social stability, especially in Cairo and Alexandria. This bread subsidy is one of the biggest line items in Egypt’s budget, and Russia is their primary grain supplier. This year (and next, if it continues) could push the country’s budget over the edge, and have a significant impact on the government’s stability.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 13:39  Comments (2)  
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Well, crap.

It looks like the US may have actually managed to do something which will change the situation in Afghanistan in the long term, not just the short term: discovered large mineral deposits.

It’s going to take a while to process the potential implications of this. Afghanistan has been an isolated place, ruled by tribal warlords and resisting any lasting change from foreign invasions for the past 2,300 years, in no small part because it has so little value to a conqueror; its positional strategic value is limited by the fact that it’s so damned difficult to hold and to cross, its natural resources were nil, and it had little population. People would invade it as a buffer zone (Brezhnev), or to get from one place to another (Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane) or to deal with some group causing trouble (Auckland, Lytton, Bush), but nobody ever held it for a long period of time.

But now there’s an estimated $1T of resources in the ground. On the one hand, local warlords are going to want to get in on the action; but they don’t have anything like the technical or logistical capability to extract resources effectively and sell them on the market. That suggests “large foreign investment,” which would normally be a euphemism for large companies setting up shop and extracting whatever they can, leaving behind as little as possible… but in an area quite as heavily-armed as this one, the normal techniques of this won’t work. I could imagine Western companies coming in if they were backed by a heavy mercenary force, or Chinese companies coming in backed by government troops. Western forces would be backed by governmental forces too, primarily US, assuming that the US had any sense in this — because if there are that many resources in the area, on top of its location, this place suddenly got a great deal more strategic, and keeping it out of the wrong hands (such as China’s) is an important policy goal. Russia is obviously going to want in as well, and I’ll bet that they’re going to use their other resources in Central Asia (e.g., their ability to secure countries where the US needs to maintain military bases to support operations in Afghanistan) in order to ensure that they get it.

Looks like it may be time for another Great Game in the area. I do wonder exactly when people realized the extent of resources available — it may shed some interesting light on the decisions people have been making over the past several years.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 21:26  Comments (14)  
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Get out and vote!

America just doesn’t take its elections seriously enough. Our last two elections, we got about 55% of the voting-age population going to the polls, and that was unusually high.

Now take a look at Iran. Why, in some towns, their voter turnout was as high as 141%. Now that’s a country that takes its democracy seriously.

Published in: on June 17, 2009 at 14:56  Comments (6)  
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Another Gaza post

Another joint analysis of the developing Gaza situation with Amy. Read and enjoy!

(And those of you who follow my blog for politics may want to start reading hers, as well. We’re probably going to do many more of these joint posts in the future.)

It’s an interesting developing situation. I mispredicted: I expected that if Israel rolled into Gaza on the ground, it would do quick deep-penetration manoeuvers to wipe out selected “hard targets” which couldn’t be hit from the air. Instead, it appears that this is a massed-force invasion. Part of this probably means that intelligence wasn’t quite good enough to really wipe out the bulk of Hamas’ military capability from the air. (DEBKA reports that the first day of bombing eliminated about 1,800 of Hamas’ 8,000 Qassam [short-range] rockets, and the campaign so far has eliminated about 50% of their Grad [longer-range] rockets. At Hamas’ new reduced rate of 80 rockets per day, they are still armed for about 2 months of firing, which is long enough for a war to end and for them to resupply.) Another thing this means is that Israel is probably going to go after Hamas’ built-up infrastructure more thoroughly, including their enormous network of underground bunkers and facilities. That’s going to be a particularly brutal sort of warfare, but it’s probably necessary since the Gaza Strip is one of the most heavily tunneled places in the world.

I’d still conjecture that the invasion is meant to last on the scale of weeks rather than months, but there’s now the distinct possibility that Israel will still be occupying significant ground positions within Gaza when Obama is inaugurated.

Published in: on January 3, 2009 at 16:28  Comments Off on Another Gaza post  
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The situation in Gaza

Ah, a new year. A perfect time to start posting about things going “Boom” in the Middle East.

This time, though, the post isn’t going to be here. The lovely and talented and I have been sitting together over the past few days and discussing the situation in Gaza in great depth, and she’s posted her summary of the situation, together with a good backgrounder for those who are just joining, over on her blog. So head on over and take a look.

Published in: on January 2, 2009 at 20:22  Comments (3)  
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The Lord’s our shepherd, says the psalm, but just in case…

On 6 Sep 2007, Israel bombed the hell out of a facility in Syria which, rumor has it, was nuclear in nature. Today the CIA gave a presentation to Congress showing the detailed evidence, which the Washington Post has kindly presented here.

Some conclusions from looking at this, and being generally familiar with nuclear equipment. This is very, very different from the rather dubious WMD intel used in Iraq; rather than fuzzy satellite photos, someone appears to have been able to walk around and inside the building during its construction with a camera and take pretty clear pictures, which can then be compared in detail with some very good-quality satellite photos.1

Assuming that the pictures are real, they are a smoking gun.2 This building was a nuclear reactor; it was of a type that can be used to produce Plutonium for nuclear weapons, but is utterly useless for any research or power generation purpose;3 it appears to be a slightly smaller4 carbon copy of the North Korean Plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon; it was in a shape that could probably be started up within weeks when it was destroyed; there is clear and repeated evidence of extensive NORK involvement in its design, construction, and operation.

Now, a more interesting question. This reactor was obviously very close to startup, which means they had to have nuclear fuel lying around somewhere in fairly large volumes. (There’s no evidence at all that Syria was working on the ability to enrich Uranium on their own, as Iran is) I’m guessing that the bombing didn’t hit a large fuel storage area, since everyone else would have noticed clouds of radioactive soot and dust and generally been a lot more worried. Presumably this fuel came from some combination of North Korea, Russia and Pakistan. (Those being the three people with fuel who would even remotely consider doing business with Syria)

So… where is it?

Presumably Syria’s next move is to try to build again, this time deep underground. NORK nuke people were on-site within days of the original attack, probably to do damage assessment; my guess is that they would tell al-Assad that this is what he gets for trying to build on the cheap in the desert, and if he really wants to protect his sites he’ll invest in their better-concealed designs. This is going to lead to something a lot harder to find and destroy. The main things which would prevent that is if the Syrians started to run low on money, or if the government suddenly found itself with enough bigger problems on its hands that extremely expensive construction projects became less enticing.


1 Whereas the Iraqi WMD photos that Colin Powell infamously presented to the U.N. were largely satellite photos with analyses explaining why this particular group of trailers could be a bio weapons plant, that group of trailers could be a chemical weapons storage facility. There was never anything up-close or really unambiguous there; at least, nothing that anyone outside the CIA ever seems to have seen.

2 Well, at this point, more like a smoking hole in the ground, but I digress.

3 It’s not good for power generation for a couple of reasons, but the most obvious one is that there’s no power plant attached to it, and the building very obviously has no room to attach one. The cooling system is simply transporting heat as quickly as possible into the Euphrates river, rather than using that heat to drive a turbine. Also, this would be a very bizarre place to build a power plant, since it was in the middle of nowhere in the desert. (And goats don’t really need that much electricity) It’s not good for research because the entire reactor vessel was placed about as inconveniently for experimenting with it as is humanly possible, it has almost no access points for probes or tweaks (as is clear from the top and side pictures), and this general design is very inflexible. Of course, Syria isn’t exactly famous for its physics research, so one can’t imagine that there was really an active cutting-edge science program going on there for other reasons as well.

4 Count the holes on the top for reactor rods; this one is 9 holes across at the top, Yongbyon is 11, but it’s clearly a scaled-down carbon copy of the design.

Published in: on April 24, 2008 at 21:02  Comments Off on The Lord’s our shepherd, says the psalm, but just in case…  
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