There can be no telling when a nation revolts. An act of despair in Tunisia sparked a crisis in Egypt that propelled widespread mass action—liberal and non-violent—unheard of in the Arab street and of unmatched proportions in perhaps all of Egypt’s history. Known as a cradle of civilization, Egypt is also a wellspring of Arab nationalist identity, culture, and politics with great geostrategic importance. Security does not come from poor governance. Egypt, like the other Arab autocracies, has suffered from many deficits: of social inequality, of freedom, of gender empowerment, of education, and of accountable governance. That’s why the contagion of mass revolt that ousted an ossified regime in Cairo soon spread across the Arab world.
One of the forces gaining strength across the MENA (Middle-East North Africa) region was a consciousness of universal human rights. And this awareness was whipped up by the connective muscle of social networking. Humiliation is a powerful motivator for rebellion. Bloggers gave the fillip to transform humiliation into dignity. With the rulers unable to rule, the people were unwilling to be ruled. Individual voices can be trampled upon, but masses when they rise, can be tougher to handle. The struggle of people against repression is the struggle of the memory against failing. Power has proved powerless in the face of unrelenting popular dissent.
The Egyptian uprising was a manifestation of the pent-up anger against soaring inflation (17%), rising unemployment (12.9%), stagnant incomes, widespread poverty (20% BPL), sham elections, draconian laws, rampant corruption and bureaucratic lethargy. Expectations of a net-savvy generation were bound to breach the dikes sooner or later. And Mubarak’s failing health only emboldened the restive youth. Egypt lacks a competitive from of education. It has a low literacy rate and ranks 106th of the 131 nations surveyed by the UN with a sluggish economic growth (2.8% in GDP terms) and a population of 79.2m growing at 2% per annum, leading to growing unemployment. Without persistent and rising food imports, which comprise 40% of all requirements, Egypt cannot feed itself. It has managed to cover up the shortfall by exporting oil, which however cannot support a burgeoning population because Egypt’s net oil exports started declining in 1997 and went negative in 2007. Egypt receives about 4 inches of rainfall per year on an average. The productive croplands along the Nile valley are rapidly shrinking due to the mushrooming of dams and industries. The price of bread has shot up since last summer, when a drought in Russia hit harvests and prompted a wheat export ban. High food prices cut purchasing power across emerging economies as a larger share of the income goes in feeding mouths. The combustible mix of unemployment and hunger is a recipe for rebellion.
Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, and continued to until the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922; but British interests reigned supreme until 1952, when the monarchy was deposed in a coup by Egyptian military officers. Gen Naguib, who had seized power, was replaced by Col. Nasser in 1956. Nasser created a model of governance based on military power. He died mysteriously in September 1970, following which Anwar Sadat was catapulted to power. He was killed in October 1981 by some elements who were opposed to the peace treaty with Israel and the alliance with the West. Hosni Mubarak, an air force commander, then rose to power. The power structure in Egypt could be divided into 2 groups: the Young Guard, led by Gamal and his cronies who were pressing for economic liberalization and privatization, and the Old Guard, led by the generals who resisted the erosion of their privileges. They were up in arms against the sweeping reforms mooted by Gamal—an outsider who was not a career military officer. That is why Mubarak’s succession plans for his son did not have military approval. The army saw in the protests a rare opportunity to forestall Mubarak’s plans. Its interests span the gamut of all economic life. It is a major beneficiary of the American largesse—aid, arms, spares, and training. Cut the flow and the army would be crippled.
The young generation officers have been deprived of the positions and wealth that their superiors have earned. They want to emerge from the existing order. But any rupture in the chain of command could help the dissidents stage a coup. That’s why the army’s top brass is averse to radical changes. Then, there are deep schisms between the army (under the Defence Ministry) and the Interior Ministry forces (IMF) like the Central Security Force and the Amin Dowla. The rift between the two forces came to the fore on January 28-29 when the protesters clashed with the IMF while the army acted with caution and restraint because one wrong step could sully its image as the custodian of civil society. On January 29, the IMF was engaged in despicable acts to undermine the credibility of the military. As the protests gained traction, the Egyptian army surged to the forefront. It set a precedent of forbearance and won over the agitators, quickly tightened its hold over the ruling order, and sidelined potential rivals for leadership roles—timely measures that helped save the regime. If the army returns to the barracks, leaving politics to civilian institutions, then the US will be compelled to move beyond the client-patron relationship. But over time, the new relationship may augur well for US interests. Mubarak’s fall gives America a chance to align its interests with its values and principles.
The 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt have been the bedrock of Israeli national security. It led to the demilitarization of the Sinai, which removed the threat to southern Israel. The agreement with Jordan in 1994 secured the most vulnerable and longest border along the Jordan River and further shielded Israel. The threat from Syria and Lebanon are against Israeli interests, not to its existence. The annual US aid of $1.3 bn to Egypt, as part of the treaty, is juxtaposed to the supply of Egyptian gas to Israel. Egypt provides 40% of the natural gas Israel consumes, which is mostly used to generate electricity. Erratic power cuts due to the Mubarak government’s failure to generate sufficient electricity domestically was a cause of public resentment against the supply of gas to Israel. It may be recalled that there was an explosion of a pipeline in the Sinai that feeds the Israeli gas network and calls from certain sections to turn off the spigots during the course of the turmoil.
The treaty could be revoked by a post-poll dispensation run by anti-Zionist hawks, over whom the army has no control. But such a picture is unlikely to emerge because Egypt could then lose the US aid—a large chunk of which flows into the army’s coffers. This could trigger an existential threat to the Egyptian military, which Israel views as the sole stabilizing force and its strategic ally. Israel would be starved of the gas supplies and faced with the specter of a three-front war and an intifada in the middle. Egypt would then open up the border with Gaza, rendering the Israeli blockade irrelevant. The first strains in the US-Egypt relationship surfaced in 2005, when Mubarak refused to endorse American plans for a ‘Greater Israel’ through settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and divvying up the Palestinian territories into several enclaves or ‘Bantustans’. Later, he rejected a 2008 Gaza invasion plan to overthrow Hamas, following which Israeli authorities made it known to US Embassy officials in Tel Aviv that it was comfortable with Omar Suleiman replacing Mubarak in case of a succession scenario.
The 1979 treaty cleared the decks for Sadat to quit the Soviet bloc and enter the American fold in a paradigm shift to the Cold War geopolitical equations in the MENA region and the Mediterranean. Any change in the existing dynamics could stack the odds against the Americans in the Arab world. Supporting Mubarak, the US got a staunch ally against Soviet expansionism, security for Israel, a bulwark against Islamic radicalism, oil and gas supplies, access to Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal for American military operations, a trade and tourist friendly Egypt, but not a functioning democracy. As the regime’s chief patron, Obama could not abandon a longstanding ally at the first trace of a revolt. That could ruin relations with Mubarak if he managed to last and also with the other Arab allies. Obama would be seen as disloyal. And what if leaders hostile to the US seized power in Cairo? Over 4% of the global oil supplies, i.e. 4m barrels a day, pass through the Suez Canal and the SUMED pipeline connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
The US could not support the protesters immediately; that would have helped the regime portray the opposition as a US tool. Nor could Obama stand by his ally during the violent crackdown; that would have fanned anti-American sentiments only to be capitalized by radical elements, or hurt relations with a successor regime if Mubarak was to go. And if all the old allies were to fall, what chance would the US have in keeping a foothold in Iraq? The US was caught between the Scylla and Charybdis as it tried to save the ‘paperboat’ political order its policies helped create. The Obama administration wavered and, unable to gauge the public mood, first stood by Mubarak, then called for reforms, and finally pressed for a peaceful transition, in the backdrop of waves of solidarity demonstrations across the West. For the moment, America is in good terms with Egypt’s interim governing council without having alienated its public—a propitious outcome by luck or design. But Obama should steer away from any attempt at social engineering, which often misfires!