Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.”
–William Shakespeare, “King Henry IV, Part Two.”
By Barry Rubin
There’s no doubt about the growing crisis in Egypt, a country that is crashing economically and whose highest government official running the religious establishment just called for genocide against Jews.
Here are four dispatches from a 24-hour period:
AP: “A ferocious fight between members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents near the group’s Cairo headquarters…could mark a dangerous turning point…raising worries that the confrontation between Islamists, who dominate power in the country, and their opponents is moving out of anyone’s control.”
Then there’s the International Herald Tribune’s, “Fall in Egyptian Pound Weighs Heavily on the Ill,” which speaks of “a shortage of an estimated 400 different drugs, some of which are considered lifesaving….”
The Atlantic, formerly one of the most reliably apologetic publications on the Brotherhood regime, speaks of vigilante groups lynching alleged criminals.
And that doesn’t even include massive power cuts; the food poisoning of around 500 students at al-Azhar University due to negligence; the institution of blasphemy cases for alleged insults toward Islam (by an actress); and to the country’s president (by a television comedian). Even the April 6 Youth Movement, which functioned as an ally and something of a front for the Brotherhood during the early days of revolution, has turned against it.
The Brotherhood-controlled state institutions have threatened to lift the licenses of two television stations–here and here–that have been critical. In the turbulent northern Sinai, armed militant groups openly paraded with weapons.
So even with an almost $5 billion IMF loan supposedly on the way—none of which will ever be paid back, meaning taking away from Western economies to prop up an Islamist anti-American regime—the prospects aren’t good.
It also won’t change the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood which is not, like Communism during the Soviet Union in its last days, a movement that doesn’t take its ideas seriously. This is a vigorous movement that feels the future belongs to itself and which will soon be governing four places (Egypt, Gaza Strip, Syria, and Tunisia).
The official Muslim Brotherhood site just tweeted the claim, earlier made by President Mursi, that Jews control the American media. Of course, that same media has been incredibly friendly to the Brotherhood and apologetic for its behavior.
Egypt’s powerful minister of religious affairs, the person who gets to decide who gets hired as preachers in mosques, as religious instructors in schools, who approves those textbooks and controls vast funds, spoke as follows recently:
“We hope the words of the Prophet Muhammad will be fulfilled: `Judgment Day will not come before’ the Muslims wipe out the Jews and added that Israel will cease to exist.
The fact that such statements don’t even register in the Western media input shows how conditioned such countries have become from ignoring such things, though anti-Jewish statements from Mursi got a bit of coverage–in the context of being regrettable but not anything meaningful–when that became unavoidable.
Consider, then the simple facts: A country of 85 million people, heavily armed (with U.S. help) is burning with anarchy and violence, teetering on the edge of an economic abyss, and threatening genocide against a neighbor with less than one-tenth of that population.
Might this be a matter of concern? Well, the crisis is being covered but there doesn’t seem to be much worry about this in Washington. And even the media coverage lacks two vital elements.
First of all, none of the many articles pointing to the disaster in Egypt have pointed out that this was all totally predictable and yet no one in the establishment—the “herd-news,” to coin a phrase—predicted it. There is no reflection on how mistaken enthusiasm for an Egyptian revolution helped transform a mildly repressive pro-Western regime that managed Egypt’s economy as well as possible into an Islamist-dominated half-dictatorship, half-anarchy disaster.
If you don’t acknowledge making big mistakes, people, you can’t correct them for the next time!
One reason this is important is that the same thing is about to happen in Syria. And I don’t say that because I regret the fall of the anti-Western radical Assad regime but rather that I shudder at what is to come.
The second point is to analyze what this chaos means. It does not mean a stable democracy, that’s for sure. Let’s examine the record of Middle East countries in this situation. Again, mind you, what’s going to happen is totally predictable.
Ideally, of course, the forces in Egypt will say, “Let’s stop acting so silly! Let’s all be nice to each other and create a representative republic and pull together to fix the crisis.” That’s sort of the kind of fantasy usually reserved by the West for the “peace process.” In Egypt’s case it is too obviously nonsense for everyone except editorial writers who tell foreign dictators and terrorists what they “should” do.
Alternatively, the best chance in theory is a military coup. Let’s remember, however, that the Egyptian army is what people have been bad-mouthing for two years now and Western governments worked hard to push them away from any possible political power. The destruction of the Turkish armed forces’ political role—far more positive than that of Egypt’s equivalent—has also been achieved.
The army might some day step in but, after all, that would just bring us full circle to 1952, the last time it happened in Cairo, creating a regime that lasted almost six decades! Besides, the army is inhibited by concern that such an action might set off a civil war that would make Syria look like a picnic in terms of bloodshed though the army would eventually win. And the Egyptian army is not institutionally moderate either. It includes growing Islamist forces among the officers and it is mainly concerned about its own economic holdings.
So what’s left? Well, the moderates can’t win but the Islamists can. The Brotherhood is not going to give up power and the Salafists look forward to a chance to kill various categories of Egyptian citizenry.
The worst but by no means impossible outcome, then, is that the Muslim Brotherhood will suspend democracy—in practice if not in theory—and with the help of the other Salafists will crush moderates, which means Christians and anyone dreaming of equal rights for women.
It is vital to understand that there is no real solution for Egypt’s economy. There is no policy that a government might follow—especially once the country has become unstable—that would work. There are too many people; too few resources. Labor discipline and productivity simply cannot compete with Asia. Massive subsidies needed to avoid a violent explosion eat up all the aid money.
After the $5 billion from the IMF has been spent, Egypt will be no better off economically.
What happens when Middle East states become ungovernable for political or economic reasons, or both? There’s a long list of examples. But there’s another factor that happens, too. Can you guess what it is?
Time’s up! It’s turning up the demagoguery against foreign scapegoats and getting involved in foreign adventures in order to mobilize support for the regime (which is incompetent at solving domestic crises). This sometimes leads to war.
Example: Why did Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait in 1990? Answer: Because things weren’t going well at home economically.
Who are the two most popular scapegoats? Israel and the United States. Who are the two most popular scapegoats for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist extremists? Well, the contemporary Egyptian Islamists have added a third sector: the Saudis.
Moderates or any non-Islamist will be accused of being a foreign agent and being involved in economic and social sabotage to ensure they are thoroughly discredited.
Now this prediction might not happen. But it is certainly the most reasonable analysis, especially when the Egyptian regime could link up with a Syrian counterpart and—if they solve their current spat—Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip.
Obviously, this presents serious challenges to Israel. On one hand, Israel has no influence on what happens in Egypt or Syria. Does anyone really believe that “solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict” will fix these issues? Well, yes, all too many people say they believe that, especially in Western policymaking circles. But the difference is that far fewer believe that any longer.
On the other hand, Israel is going to have to face angry, hostile regimes in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. Fortunately, these regimes will be in two different—Sunni and Shia– camps. Equally, as they wreck their own countries they are less able to form a conventional military threat. And as they spend most of their energy on internal battles over power, they have fewer resources for foreign adventures.
Still, they will be tempted to create dangerous crises anyway that will cost billions of dollars and damage (probably even end) the lives of actual people.
——————– Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.