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Watching Egypt                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Feb/09/2011 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: World Watching,

If you have been paying attention to any news, you are aware that people have been in the streets in Egypt for nearly two weeks protesting the current government of Hosni Mubarak. The media likes to find quick and simple reasons to explain all this unrest, but I see many factors at work.

Over the years, American officials have with frequency lectured other countries about their denial of basic civil liberties to their citizens. In the cases of Cuba and Venezuela, these lectures have been very public. For countries such as China, the same message has been with a much more muted voice. During the Cold War, the United States was very vocal in condemning Soviet practices of repression. In many Arab nations, American administrations have chosen to complain only in private about the authoritarian or sham democratic governments they have formed alliances with. It is all about balance, the balance is the need to serve the civil liberties of the citizens verses the best interest of the U.S. and its geopolitical needs.

In truth, the U.S. has supported Mubarak’s government for many years because it has been in its own best interest. That means that interceding, or not interceding now is a tenuous balance. If the U.S. openly backs the protesters and Mubarak successfully quells them, the U.S. will have alienated itself from the current government. If the U.S. backs Mubarak and his government falls, any new government will be hesitant to form an alliance with the U.S. Does the phrase “catch-22” come to mind?

Egypt’s economy is in a fragile state. Oil and natural gas production and revenues have fallen sharply from their peak in the early 1990’s. Egypt has a small steel and automotive sector, but it does not produce enough to meet their own needs or to support a regional export market. We all know that Egypt is renowned for their cotton, but this business actually employs a relatively small portion of their labor force. Tourism is currently the largest employing of their small economy. While tourism is important, it is not and never will be large enough to be their economic backbone. The largest void to be filled in Egypt’s economy is food. Egypt produces only a small portion of their food needs. Egypt is actually one of the world’s largest importers of wheat making them very dependent on market forces they cannot control. With droughts and floods in Russia, India and Australia global wheat production has been decreasing since 2008. The jump in the price of wheat coincided with a move by the government in 2007 to let the economy move to a more open market driven scheme. With wheat going up the Egyptian government started subsidizing the cost again in 2009 to reduce the impact, but this has been expensive and can’t be kept up indefinitely.

Mubarak has been in power for over 30 years and like many long standing governments a common set of problems have transpired. There is now a great deal of cronyism and nepotism throughout the governmental ranks. Cronyism and nepotism consistently foster governments that are focused on serving the needs of the office holders as opposed to serving the needs of the citizens. Didn’t Mubarak initially suggest publically his son as his replacement, shades of North Korea? Of course there is also the corruption that is common in long standing autocratic governments. While the standard of living for most in the Middle East is very low, it is suspected that Mubarak along with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia , Lebanon, Jordan and other countries have looted billions of dollars from the treasuries for their personal gain.

One of the problems for the west is jumping to conclusions too quickly. Western countries like to over generalize uprisings in the Middle East and associate them all with Islamic fundamentalism. It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is a political faction in Egypt, but they have been most notable for their absence from this popular uprising. Al-Qaida as well, has been very quiet. I would suspect that they were as unprepared for the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt as those countries own leaders.

One of the fundamental keys to power in Egypt is their military. Historically, support of this well organized and disciplined military force has been fundamental to holding Egyptian power. With that in mind it is important to note that while the military has been present protecting antiquities, they have been absent in forcibly quelling or dispersing the crowds of protesters. Obviously, some of this is because they would be attacking their own brothers, but by their own lack of action even in the role of crowd control, they have demonstrated their lack of overt support for sustaining Mubarak’s government.

And what about the other countries in the region? Tunisia’s fall caught everyone off guard and without a doubt was what lit the fuse for the protests in Egypt. If America intercedes, what will be the impact on the peace between Egypt and Israel? Other countries are watching closely as well. Saudi Arabia is one of the United States strongest allies in the region, but they are a far cry from an open and democratic society. If the U.S. openly supports and encourages change in Egypt, what will be the outcome from the Saudi’s? This is again the difference between American sentiments and American interests and why it is currently best for the U.S. to simply hang back and wait to be supportive of whom ever rises out of the chaos.

The real challenge is what’s next for Egypt regardless of what the rest of the world hopes for? Egypt’s biggest burden in the short term is the cost of food and their high unemployment. While forcing Mubarak out will create a potential climate of empowerment for their citizens, it will not create jobs or drive down the cost of imported food. As with many poor countries, Egypt has an ever widening gap between those who have, and those who have little or nothing. Until that gap can be closed with food, jobs, and opportunity for the future, no government, regardless of how democratic will be sustainable. This helps explain why the larger conflict in Egypt is so confusing to so many outsiders. When Tunisia’s dictator fled, Egyptians saw an opportunity and poured into the streets. But there was no movement, no leader, only the surge of the crowds. The intellectuals and dissenters tried to get their arms around it and are calling for democracy. In the long run the crowds won’t be happy, though, if democracy is all they get. You can’t eat a ballot. A new and more democratic government might be more transparent and represent a broader segment of the population and these are all good things. Unfortunately, there is probably not much that any new government can do to solve the cost of food and create real and sustainable jobs for all those Egyptians questioning their future.

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Graham Greene
Despair is the price one pays for setting himself an impossible aim.
 
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