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Blog Posted in avatar   Sam Vaknin's Blog

Egypt: Back to the Future

By Sam Vaknin
Posted Nov 30, 2011 in Politics
Interview granted to Koshan Ali Khidhir (Zamanee).
Sam Vaknin is an economic and political analyst and the Editor-in-Chief of "Global Politician".
Q. What was the main cause of starting Arab revolution, especially in Egypt?
SV: In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-9, riots erupted all over the world, from Thailand to the Ivory Coast and from Yemen to Albania. For some reason, the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt were singled out by the international media and cast as the Middle-Eastern equivalents of the French Revolution involving the overthrow of stale dictators and the eternal cry for freedom and “democracy”. Why would Egyptians and Tunisians who have never experienced either freedom or democracy clamour for both was left unexplored.
The truth is far less romantic and much more prosaic: spiralling food prices, resurgent inflation, and growing income disparities between rich and poor gave rise to the discontent that led inexorably to the much-ballyhooed skirmishes. It was about food, not about freedom. Egypt GDP has grown by a respectable 5% in 2010, but the cost of comestibles soared by 17% and unemployment ratcheted up to 9.7%. Egypt’s population is inordinately young and is set to double within the next three decades. Hopelessness is a potent combustible: the absence of job prospects weighs more heavily with Egypt’s Twitter crowd than their country’s noxious psephological record.
Like in dozens of other developing countries, the Egyptians struck a Faustian deal with their rulers: they gave up their liberty in return for personal safety, job security, and middle-class prospects. Mubarak, the country’s much-maligned Pharaoh failed to deliver on all three counts. Having thus breached the unwritten social contract, the Egyptians want him to pay the ultimate political price and abdicate humiliatingly.
So, why are they crying out for “freedom” and “democracy”? Because it sounds good on television and because these are the reflexive buzzwords of this post-authoritarian age. They wouldn’t know a democracy if it fell in their lap: Egypt has been a military dictatorship since 1952 and an absolutist monarchy prior to that. This is the key to the resolution of this largely artificial crisis: the military will step in; depose of the aging and ailing Mubarak; appoint a caretaker “expert” and “interim” government, headed by one of their own; set an ever-shifting date for “free and fair” elections; freeze food prices; create jobs (with the West’s generous assistance); and increase social handouts. Thus pacified, the Egyptian street will revert to its habitual somnolence.
And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Having been brutally repressed for decades, they are in no shape to pose any serious threat or to constitute any real alternative to the military. This is not to say that, in the longer term, they won’t rebound. Egypt may yet end up a theocracy whose dogmatism lies somewhere between Iran and Turkey. But this is not for now.
And what about Egypt’s relationship with Israel? Both sides benefit greatly from America’s largesse (to the tune of 2-3 billion USD annually each). The Egyptian military is unlikely to give up such a generous endowment. Israel also buys half its natural gas consumption from Egypt. There are intelligence-sharing programs in place. In short: Israel and Egypt are as inextricably intertwined as Israel and Turkey. Prognosis: a cold front ahead, but no stormy conditions.
Q. Do you expect changes in State System in Egypt after the revolution?
SV: I predict an unholy alliance of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. This ad-hoc and opportunistic coalition will not survive for long: the military is bound to crack down on the increasingly assertive political Muslim bloc and re-establish its supremacy in order to protect its vast commercial interests.
Q. What were the determinations of Egypt's Foreign Policy during Mubarak period?
SV: Mubarak was a pro-American power broker. He derived his strength from his close association with the United States and its traditional allies in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. With his American unconditional support gone, he was doomed. Obama heralded Mubarak's downfall and precipitated it in his speech in Cairo.
Q. What would be the aftermath or impact of Arab Revolution on Egypt's foreign policy?
SV: Nothing much. Egypt will continue its pro-American orientation as before with one exception: its privileged relationship with Israel will be transformed into a realpolitik one. Israel will no longer enjoy gas at an a subsidized price; unbridled access to intelligence; Egyptian cooperation in suppressing Hamas; access to Egyptian military assets; and other amenities of the "special relationship."
Q. What would be the impact of the revolution on Egypt-Israel relations?
SV: Israel has witnessed and survived through many convulsions in the Arab street. In 1953, Nasser's youthful and reform-inclined pan-Arabism swept the Arab world. The long-term fruit of this hopeful tumult, though, was Mubarak. The revolutionary Baa'th parties in Syria and Iraq gave us Saddam Hussein and the murderous Assad dynasty. Israel is very skeptical when it comes to yet another Arab Spring. It tends to support reactionary regimes because they are predictable and easy to do business with. Israel is a natural foe of progress and democracy in the region because it would like to maintain its monopoly on these important political currencies.
The Jews and their state, Israel, have always sported a pro-colonial predilection, relying on "Big Powers" (Britain, France, then the United States of America) to sort out the Middle-Eastern quagmire in Israel's favor. This default policy may no longer prove possible.
A consensus is now emerging in Europe - including Britain - that the "road map" for peace in the Middle East would be a futile exercise without some anti-Israeli "teeth". Recognizing the nascent Palestinian state in September 2011 may be just the start. Economic sanctions are on the cards as well. With Obama in the White House - a President the Israelis largely consider to be hostile - and with the Arab world turning palpably more democratic, the Europeans feel unshackled. Striving towards an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation may prove to be the glue that reunites the fractious Euro-Atlantic structures.
But while the United State is reluctant to impose a settlement on the Israelis, the specter of sanctions against the Jewish state has re-emerged in the Old Continent's corridors of power. A committee of the European Parliament is said to be laboring away at various scenarios of escalating measures against Israel and its leaders. The European Commission may be readying its own proposals.
Not all Americans are Obamatons. The views of Conservative Americans are summed up by David Pryce-Jones, Senior Editor of National Review:
"Israelis and Palestinians face each other across the new ideological divide in a dilemma that bears comparison to Germany's in the Cold War ... Israel must share territory with Palestinians, a growing number of whom are proven Islamic terrorists, and who identify with bin Laden's cause, as he identifies with theirs ... The Oslo peace process is to the Middle East what Ostpolitik was to Germany and central Europe. Proposals to separate the two peoples physically on the ground spookily evoke the Berlin Wall."
Still, such sentiments aside, in the long-run, Muslims are the natural allies of the United States in its role as a budding Asian power, largely supplanting the former Soviet Union. Thus, the threat of militant - and even nuclear - Islam is unlikely to cement a long term American-Israeli confluence of interests. Moreover, with the prospect of representative regimes in several Arab states more tangible, Israel is losing its long-held title as the "Middle East's only democracy."
Rather, the aforementioned menace of armed fundamentalism may yet create a new geopolitical formation of the USA and moderate Muslim countries, equally threatened by virulent Muslim religiosity. Later, Russia, China and India - all destabilized by growing and vociferous Muslim minorities - may join in. Israel will be sacrificed to this New World Order.
The writing is on the wall, though obscured by the fog of war and, as The Guardian revealed in April 2003, by American reliance during the conflict in Iraq on Israeli intelligence, advanced armaments and lessons in urban warfare. The "road map" announced by President George Bush as a sop to his politically besieged ally, Tony Blair, and much contested by the extreme right-wing government of Ariel Sharon, called for the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. The temporal goalposts may have shifted but not the ineluctable outcome: The State of Palestine is upon us, embedded in an Arab world far less amenable to Israel's economic charms (witness the cessation of Egyptian gas supplies to Israel under the new military "transition" dictatorship).
Israel was always expected to promptly withdraw from all the territories it re-seized during the 30 months of second intifada. Blair had openly called on it to revert to the pre-Six Day War borders of 1967. In a startlingly frank and impatient speech, so did Obama in May 2011.
Q. Do you expect reviewing Camp David Treaty, or peace agreement between Israel and Egypt by new Egypt's government in the future?
SV: Not in any meaningful way. Egypt needs peace and commercial ties with Israel. There may be a grand show of Egyptian "patriotism" and pro-Palestinian pan-Arabism and calls for revising the bilateral treaties with Israel, but these will peter out as things revert to normal. Israel is at the bottom of Egypt's list of priorities right now, as Egyptians struggle to redefine their state and regime and determine their collective future. The last thing Egypt needs is added instability on its borders with Israel and Gaza.
Q. What do you expect, Egypt becomes new Turkey, in Islamic politics doctrine or it becomes a conservative state?
SV: Egypt may be trying to emulate and follow the trajectory of Turkey: a military dictatorship replaced by a "moderate" Muslim autocratic rule. But the difference is that the military in Turkey was the guardian and guarantor of an ideology of secularism and Western orientation. This self-imputed role gave it an aura and the status of an untouchable holy cow. By comparison, the military in Egypt is a mafia-like organization that involves millions and their families in plundering the state. It is not easy to get rid of criminalized structures once they have taken hold and assimilated state institutions. The military is Egypt.

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