Monday, July 29, 2013


In Christopher Hitchens' words "Egypt is not a country that has an army, but an army that has a country."  With General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi at the helm, Hitchens' boutade became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The new interim-President Adly Mansour is a prop, while the general acts more and more as if he were the pharaonic lead in some Aida make-over.  In this (too) he resembles President Mubarak, whose whereabouts or trial remain equally off limits. The ousted President Morsi is equally incommunicado after this coup which is merchandised as a "non coup."

The short tenure of President Morsi was farcical and the power-grab by the Muslim Brotherhood led to the surge of a culture of martyrdom, religious zealotry and unreliability internally and abroad. The detention of Morsi without transparent rule of law and the killing of Islamic protesters overshadow the promise of a speedy return to elected rule. Sisi is a formidable personality but he looks increasingly authoritarian and confrontational. One shouldn't be naive though. The erosion of what remained of a civil society under Morsi was as much a coup "by stealth" as the military ouster of a democratically elected president was a coup by "force."

Meanwhile, Egypt is confronted with problems on all sides and in all sectors. Tourism is gone, finances are on life-support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar i.a. and insecurity and violence rule. If the military is willing to rely more on soft power, public opinion might still be won over in a structural mode. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood is supposedly supported by a quarter of Egyptians. A crackdown might increase the numbers and sympathy for a group that is adept at mobilizing the less attractive, radical, theocratic aspects of its creed.

Egypt is a major player both in the region and worldwide. It has sophisticated diplomats and a remarkable business network. Under Mubarak, Egypt was able to be a first-league player in world affairs. Unfortunately, this added value seldom reached the hearts and minds of a country wherein "enlightenment" was perceived as the realm of the privileged. The Sharm el-Sheikh and Luxor "Bantustans" for the affluent were almost off-limits for the "pious" Egyptians.  An oligarchy of Westernized entrepreneurs preferred to look elsewhere rather than try to bring about a more just redistribution of wealth inside. The radical Islamists got a free pass in compensating for the lack of proper education or health care. 

Egypt is emblematic for the contradictions of the "Arab Spring."  Elsewhere in the vicinity the unpredictable is overtaking the desirable:  Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan.  In Egypt, the Sinai is becoming an alarming flash point. The goings on in Turkey, and Iran under a new more moderate (?) president, remain largely ambiguous.  Egypt has to become the "new normal." It has a political, economic, and cultural data-bank like no other country in the region. The military should plug into this memory in order to facilitate a return to democracy, and a multiparty system wherein there is also room for the Brotherhood.  General al-Sisi might prefer to be remembered for ushering in a transition to multiparty democracy and a return of Egypt to the world stage rather than for having ushered out his former boss.  Meanwhile, the United States and the EU better encourage the good rather than press for the (for now) unattainable better.

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