The Egyptian People: About to Drink a Cup of Sick?

Poor old Egypt. The world’s oldest civilisation (with due apologies to Greeks and Iraqis who’d like to claim the same…) wracked with violence and protest. It’s like a bad ground-hog day at the London student protests, only without the kettle.

Some hack observations:

* The US administration has dropped a ball on this one. They should have just gone with supporting the ‘what the people want’ line, rather than falling down a rabbit-hole of sort of supporting Mubarak, then Mubarak Mk2, then democracy, but not Muslim Brotherhood, not now, nor ever etc etc..

* The British-American desire for democracy everywhere is incompatible with our strategic, mineral based interests. What we actually want are strict bastards who will deliver us our mineral based products at a stable price and in a guaranteed way. Democracy in hot and dusty places appears to cause volatility in both of these factors, and is therefore a nuisance.

* We love democracy, but we’re not keen on the leading runners and riders in most elections that result from this kind of political upheaval. I’ve never understood why the locals get so agitated about western influence, when all we do is tell them to exercise choice.. but not that choice. And old man Mubarak must be pulling his Grecion 2000’d hair out wondering exactly how much more stability he had to deliver to the west to deserve a bit of support, in a sticky moment. Dealing with the west (and their contradictory demands) in a hot and dusty place is seemingly from the Rory Breaker school of diplomacy.

* We may well have to revise our opinion of the Bush Administration’s desire to transform the Middle East, they may well have actually set that in motion. Managing the transition from no democracy (and no cultural experience of democracy) to western style democracy is going to be very difficult indeed, and managing the balance between offering choice and managing change might need to be assertively overcome.

* I did quite like hearing a raft of British politicians praising those who went onto the streets to try and overthrow Mubarak. There are a lot of academics (and no, I went precisely nowhere near any protests and have no intention of ever doing so) and students who must feel quite sore about the different standards applied to the Egyptians and student protestors here. Afterall, vigilante barricades and ad-hoc justice are a million miles away from the meandering protests of British academics. Perhaps the British political class just has little empathy for world leaders in hot and dusty places?  I did quite like the cheek of the Iranian government who called in the British Ambassador in Tehran to complain about how the student protesters had been treated : did he manage to keep a straight face when he was doing it?

So, Egypt looks likely to get a Mubarak Mk2 regime, which sends the old man out to think about his belated retirement, and which will be obliged to play nicely in the first instance before returning to business as usual (one would assume). I have no desire for extremists to take over in Egypt and I understand the strategic importance of the place, but it would be nice for those in the media and academia who do punditry on this kind of thing to just be honest about the fact that we don’t really care what happens to ordinary Egyptians (or if we do, we’ve been silent for 30years for no apparent reason), or any of those living in our former colonies (Zimbabwe springs to mind), we want stable rule (with whatever that means for individuals) so that our mineral wealth and state alliances can be preserved. When normal service is resumed in Egypt it will be trebles all round in the west and those who do well there, whilst the Egyptian people will get to drink their cup of sick.  Lucky them!


23 thoughts on “The Egyptian People: About to Drink a Cup of Sick?

  1. Eamonn says:

    How does the argument about oil explain the fact that “we” are chummy with the Saudis but hostile to Iran. Iran has lots of oil and could probably export much more if it wasn’t subject to sanctions. Why aren’t we saying “Mahmoud, old boy, we aren’t bothered by your horrendous internal repression nor are we by you plan to have your own bomb. Just as long as we can buy as much of your oil as we need we’ll let you govern as you please, our friendly oil companies will even invest in your lovely country to help you find more.”

    How does the oil argument explain US-Israeli relations? How does it explain the invasion of Iraq? In what way do “we” have Iraqi oil now that we couldn’t have had by forgiving and forgetting with Saddam?

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  3. Rob Dover says:

    Iraq was the irrational outlier – see reviews from both sides of the pond.
    Alliance with Israel is due to multifold reasons that clearly have little to do with oil, but lots to do with historical, electoral and strategic factors.
    Iran desires the collapse/death of the US…. and the Saudi royal family most certainly do not.

    • Gunrunner says:

      And to add my quick thoughts. . .

      First, the Iranian regime does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, whereas Egypt does. Maybe the Saudi’s don’t recognize that right but they are not actively and publicly agitating for the extinction of the Israeli state/people.

      Second, The Iranian regime assaulted American diplomats and took hostages, whereas thus far the Egyptians and Saudi’s have not.

      Third, the Egyptians and Saudi’s have not threatened blocking the Suez Canal, whereas the Iranians have threatened the Straits of Hormuz.

      Finally, the Egyptians have not embraced terrorism, whereas the Iranians have as a matter of policy (and are murdering US servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan). Saudi may have factions that support terrorism, but the Saudi ruling elite do not view terrorism as a national policy worth supporting because islamic terrorists are not too happy about their alliance with the US.

      Just to name a few that spring to mind. . .

  4. Pirouz says:

    Iraq? That colonial construction of a country as the oldest civilization?

    Some of us think this honor belongs to Iran. You know, the birth of the neolithic age, the invention of the wheel, the invention of writing and don’t forget beer. Civilization’s gotta have beer!

    • Gunrunner says:

      I’m thinking their civilization peaked about 6,000 years too early and has been on the decline ever since. . .


    • olaf says:

      If you would like to get updated on 6000 years of Persian decline start with a google search: handy keywords are Persepolis, Dareios, Xerxes, Seleucid Empire, Sassanides Empire, Saffavides Empire, Seljuk Empire, and Il-Chane states. Enjoy ;-)

  5. Gunrunner says:

    Mubarak has been a strong ally to the west for about 30-yrs—something quite extraordinary in that region.

    You are right, the US should have handled better, like perhaps quietly approaching Mubarak and twisting his arm, so to speak, “asking” him to step down and work to ensure the Egyptian population and opposition know he was leaving and because of his compassion, working a transition plan to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

    The US should also have helped with his decision to leave by finding him a safe and secure home where he could enjoy his retirement years, protected from the pesky UK lefty-academics chasing after him, clutched in their hands annoying World Court warrants.

    Funny thing, we wish all these despots and dictators to leave but yet, when they do they are pursued relentlessly. Kind of like what was done to Pinochet. If anything, pursuing Pinochet gave strong justification for despots and dictators around the world (Castro, Mugabe, for example) to remain in power indefinitely because if they gave-up power, they would then no longer enjoy the immunity protections offered heads of state. . .but I digress.

    Mubarak is needed to ensure we have a relatively peaceful transition in Egypt. If he were to just abandon Egypt, walk away today, then the vacuum created would embroil Egypt for years (decades?) in a struggle between the various factions vying for power and influence, with the Muslim brotherhood holding the upper hand. The MB would hold the upper hand not for reasons of popularity but for reasons of fear. The MB is not known to hold-back when it comes to murdering the opposition, and while most Egyptians embrace the “western” value of capitalism, they also like to be alive to enjoy the benefits of it. While they may be unbridled capitalists in their street-vendor rug merchant ways, they are also pragmatic when it comes to decisions that may affect their personal survival.

    The US could have brokered his departure in a less public (less embarrassing) way. A aggressive behind the scenes engagement would have worked, IMHO, as Mubarak is tired and was grooming Gamal. . .he just needed a firm but gentle push to the door. (Wikileaks, call your office for an important message on why private diplomatic communications should remain, well, private).

    The US could have then called in the walking cadaver, Jimmuh Carter, to chair international over-sight of the elections.

    Of course, the Egyptian military would be in place to protect the population as they went to the polls.

    Imagine the visual of the Egyptian military protecting the population as it peacefully voted for a new government. That would be extraordinary to behold. A military in the middle-east acting as the honest-broker, protecting the people as they exercise their right to vote, ensuring a peaceful transition in an Islamic country. . . wow.

    Not that anyone would give credit to the US for such an event, or give credit today to the US for the restraint of the Egyptian military. Truthfully, I am tired of the uninformed prattle of the media and other pundits when it comes to aid granted by the US to the Egyptians. The uninformed gnash their collective teeth, cry about the US supporting an oppressive regime while at the same time these same pundits willfully ignore the success those billions produced when it comes to the most stable influence in Egypt today—the military. Not only did FMF contribute greatly to the peace process in the middle-east, it gave us an Egyptian military with a strong westernized approach to domestic pol-mil relations.

    At one time I was involved for many years in helping administer billions of FMF for the Egyptians, as well as (post USG service) an independent consultant and speechwriter for senior Egyptian military personnel. I know them, as nothing puts you in their mind better than trying to put words in their mouth. So it is with (I think) informed conviction that I say the Egyptian military is truly the stabilizing factor in Egypt because of US involvement these past 30-yrs. Of equal importance was Mubarak’s support for the US. We may have bought his support but there is no denying Mubarak’s support of the US (and FMF funds) presented an opportunity to shape and grow the most stabilizing influence today in Cairo—the Egyptian military.

    Absent US involvement and Mubarak’s support, the events in Egypt would be far more bloody and less certain. Imagine the response if for the last 30-yrs the Soviets/Russians held sway over the military’s education and training.

    • Gunrunner says:

      Rob, my buddy, my pal, my friend,

      Ha. . . you do like to push my buttons. . .as friends do.

      The Guardian, always my go-to read for credible and unbiased reporting, especially when they rely on HRW as a source.

      Seriously, though, the Egyptian military is far, far better than most realize when considering where they were, where they are, and what is accepted as policy.

      No matter who, no matter where, allegations fly, some well founded, some not so much. Thing is, the question must be asked and answered: are the alleged acts of alleged abuse the result of official policy or not? In Egypt, any abuse is not. Heck, the average Egyptian soldier behaving remarkably well. Now, don’t take the following wrong, but can we say the same about the British forces: (to use The Guardian). No, I am not insulting the British forces. Far from it. Just making a point about Guardian reports and allegations to put things in perspective.

      Egyptian military leaders are firmly committed to not shaking loose from their American connection. They are doing all they can to ensure this does not happen—and that includes not mowing down the crowd and engaging in mass arrest/murder ala Tiananmen Square.

      I think what we are seeing in this Guardian piece is the usual lefty approach to things: Any ally of the West can’t be good enough to warrant support, whereas, any enemy of the West can’t be brutal enough and deserves understanding and engagement.

      What we have in this supposed factual report in The Guardian is a dog-bites-man report, and all things considered in the islamic world, it’s not much of a dog bite.

      I’ll be in London and Bristol in March. See you then?

    • Gunrunner says:

      “. . .you believe these incidents. . .”

      Stating as fact a Guardian opinion piece masquerading as an objective news report as a source? Not that demonstrator’s would ever make up charges. . . . ;-~

      Are there legitimate cases of abuse? No doubt. After all, we are talking about an Islamic third-world country for key-rist sakes. Given that fact it is astounding how few abuse allegations there are. Why? because they are the good guys and have been under our influence for a very long time, receiving our training and education on western values and approach to pol-mil relations. Would you rather embrace the “secular” MB as a viable option?

      “Perhaps you’ll tell us they’re just tragic collateral damage, since they’re done by the ‘good guys’.”

      Ah, you prove my point, “Any ally of the West can’t be good enough to warrant support. . .”

      And who is saying abuse is acceptable? Not I. You?

      Are you suggesting we abandon all support, pull economic and political-military support and let them become, oh I dunno, another wonderfully tolerant and loving country like Iran?

      Abuse is not Egyptian senior military leadership policy these days, precisely because they are the “good guys” and received FMF because of that.

      The Egyptians have much to lose beyond nightly news coverage if abuse becomes policy. They do not wish to put at risk their financial, political and military relationship with the US. Perhaps you need to re-read my posts on this thread to get a greater appreciation of why.

      Applogy for the terse reply, have much to do, researching (yes, we in the gunrunning business do a lot of study. . .lots more at stake than a pass/fail grade on a slip of paper).


    • Gunrunner says:

      Your broad post with no specifics other than a vague reflection of some sort of attitude, I respond with specifics and I am accused of engaging in “strawmen” arguments? Just who is engaging in “real debate?”

      Don’t confuse what you read, it is not”strawman” you see, it is charging windmills.

      I do find it interesting and amusing that you consider a broad two sentence post “real debate?”

      Now, back to the cold of Ottawa. Darned freezing here.

    • Pericles says:

      Well, this has turned out well ;-) The Egyptian military have proven true heroes when it comes to shooting innocent protesters or causing crippling lifelong injuries with rubber bullets. At facilitating democratic transition after decades of enlightened FMF? Not so much…

  6. Formerly Grant says:

    It isn’t as though the U.S had much reason to think that the protests would have this kind of power. Looking at Tunisia, Iran and Egypt and I imagine my government thought the protests would be crushed in a week. Also we have an uneasy relationship with democracy-spreading efforts. When we push nations to be more democratic they seem to promptly ignore us and find new friends and protesters almost never have this kind of success. Given that and the fact that our rivals are more than willing to embrace people like Mubarak, to an American it seems like we don’t have many options.

  7. An excellent summary of some of the issues here. Personally I think its abhorrent that we can fight two wars to bring democracy to the Middle East (sort of, it might also have been about WMDs, or something), and yet when people Egypt are out on the streets demanding democracy we’re nowhere to be seen.

    You’re absolutely right, ultimately we want that region to be run by strongmen who will lock down their populations and ensure we get shiny things at the rate we demand.

    Particularly sad to watch Obama give up entirely on his endless speeches and rhetoric about the good democracy can do and the need to bring it to the whole world. Instead he’s going to help shepherd in a new, equally corrupt and undemocratic, regieme and call it change for the better.

    The one positive in all this is that the Egyptian people don’t seem to give a crap what the rest of the world thinks. They’re going to stay out on the streets and shut down the capital every day until they get what they want. With Al Jazeera ensuring that the story stays close to the front page its just possible the protests might actually achieve something.

  8. Chirality says:

    I agree, you’re spot on. Democracy is often not compatible with strategic interest.

    Look how well China is now doing. It’s foreign relations policy of “noninterference” in domestic affairs appears to be paying great dividends in avoiding middle eastern oil supply volatility.

    Where the West fears to tread because of dictatorship and abuse China quietly slides in – Sudan, Angola, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Venezuela to name but a few.

    If the West wishes to peddle a Victorian evangelical message of “democracy and civilization to all the heathen savages” then it must also pay the price of increased trade volatility and loss of strategic self interest.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Actually looking at the world I’m drawing the exact opposite conclusion. China might think it can continue a policy of total noninterference as long as the U.S and the U.N try to handle problems but personally I don’t think they’ve really planned ahead. Chinese fears of losing Iranian oil, attacks on Chinese businessmen and workers in Africa, piracy at the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean look increasingly like just a taste of what China is going to have to deal with.

    • Chirality says:

      Interesting. While concurring with the likely upward trend in your examples, I tend to disagree with you on conclusion. For so long as China provides cheap infrastructure, governmental funding and geopolitical support to dubious regimes, these incidents will only likely be irritants (save any near term loss of Iranian oil).

      The Chinese are often far more pragmatic and “results driven” than the heavily legalistic & philosophical “process driven” western democracies. Just look at the backgrounds of the Chinese leaders versus leaders in western democracies to demonstrate the difference. I also consider the Chinese to be playing a far better strategic long game than the present short termist western political democracies.

      Let’s see how China deals with the split in North / South Sudan (where 10% of its oil comes from) as a topical current example. They heavily supported the governing North over the wishes of the oil rich South. I’ll wager they come to a nice efficient resolution.

      Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not condoning Chinese policy; just the efficacy of its approach against the weaker correlation of liberal democracy with strategic self interest.

      Re: Egypt, I think the last paragraph of Rob Dover’s article says it best. Just can’t help thinking China would have been less mealy mouthed about it if U.S. paternalism were reversed. As things stand we have to interpret the subplot of all North American & European communique’s. Perhaps only in the middle east is western self interest big enough to overcome its overt democratic proselytizing.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Don’t forget that the majority of the oil from Sudan comes from the Southern part of it. Though highly unlikely, the Southerners could always stop the flow.
      In any case my real point was that if China does rise in power (as they certainly seem to be trying) it also makes China a nice big target for plenty of states and organizations, especially if the CCP continues encouraging nationalist sentiment. Watch the South China Sea, South Asia and the Korean peninsula for developments.

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