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Important information about the riots in Egypt

30 January 2011

Summary:  The events in Egypt are complex; accurate forecasting is not possible.  But we can look through the fog generated by the news media (remember the reporting about Hurricane Katrina?) to see some simple and important facts, and make some likely guesses.   Links to other posts in this series appear at the end.

Contents

  1. Background of the riots
  2. Yes, the ‘Islamist Menace’ is overblown.  And no, it is not.
  3. Oil prices have spiked, probably with little reason
  4. It’s not about us
  5. What do the people of Egypt think?
  6. Addendum:  what should we do?

Correction:  these are protests, strictly speaking not (yet) riots.  Especially since what violence has occurred has been mostly by government agents or provocateurs.

I.  Background of the riots

(a)  A hidden cause:  overpopulation

Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) observers:  “One reason the people are demonstrating and beginning to revolt is unfortunately, a flavor to come. Their populations have far outstripped resources, especially in Egypt. To keep the people quiet the government gave jobs to the educated and free grain to the masses.  But they never addressed family planning.  They, like us, want to live in fantasy world in which unlimited (but irresponsible) population growth will be maintain by technology.  That dream is coming to an end.”

During the last 10 years the population has grown by 20%.  It was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.  Now Egypt imports 40% of its food, and has become the world’s #1 importer of wheat.  Food inflation in Egypt has been 4x that of Tunesia (roughly 20% vs. 5%).

(b)  Another cause:  energy and food prices are rising

While it’s not true that Egyptians only protest about the price of bread (e.g., the 1977 riots), it’s probably an important factor today. As shown in the FAO’s latest report (graph below).  “Food and beverages” comprise 39% of Egypt’s consumer price index (CPI).  Energy prices are also rising. They are not broken out in the CPI tables, but are only a small fraction (roughly 5%). 

(c)  Regime change is a multi-player game

The security services have strong ties to the ruling NDP, and as such are rivals of the military (Stratfor has a good analysis of the police/army conflict.). The Islamic factions are enemies of both.  Every society under stress has many fault lines, with unexpected vulnerabilities that makes the outcome of revolutionary processes impossible to accurately predict.

(d)  It’s probably a long game, not sudden death

The Middle East consists largely of regimes with low legitimacy.  Rotten at the core, vulnerable to sudden collapse.  On the other hand, we often overestimate the speed of political transitions.   Political inertia increases with the size of the population.  Tunisia has a pop of ten million; Egypt has 80 million.   The transition in the first might take two years, the latter twenty years.

Egypt is not in the first inning of this process.  Their elites are positioning themselves for the next inning, after the ailing 82-year old Mubarak dies.  Also, these riots have a complex foundation, as explained in “Egypt’s Day of Wrath a Long Time Coming“, Elizabeth Iskander (research fellow in International Relations at the London School of Economics), World Politics Review, 28 January 2011:

But these protests have not appeared out of nowhere. To the contrary, there have been successive rounds of protests that have continued throughout the past couple of years. We can point to the large 2008 demonstration in al-Mahalla as the beginning of a raised level of activism and a direct indication that the Egyptian street would not remain quiet forever. The campaign of Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt last February and launched the Association for Change, is perhaps one link in the chain leading to these protests. While ElBaradei’s campaign has not resulted in any concrete, practical changes, it broke a taboo by vocally expressing the need for change, shaking a new media-savvy generation from its political apathy. ElBaradei was out of the country when this week’s demonstrations broke out, but he has returned to Egypt today.

The death in June 2010 of Khalid Mohamed Said at the hands of the police was another key event serving to break down taboos on public criticism of the government, thereby preparing the way for this week’s expression of popular anger. At the time, the incident provoked demonstrations against police brutality accompanied by slogans exposing the disconnect between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the current demonstrations were timed to coincide with National Police Day. Designating this day instead as the Day of Wrath reflects the Egyptian people’s sense of degradation and discontent with a government that has implemented and exploited emergency laws to limit freedoms.

The turmoil in Egypt might have a fast resolution, but more likely will extend for many innings.   With several incremental changes of government along the way, some appearing stable (for a while).

II.  Yes, the ‘Islamist Menace’ is overblown.  And no, it is not.

Heather Hurlburt (executive director of the National Security Network), convincingly explains that the ‘Islamist Menace’ is overblown  in The New Republic, 28 January.  While probably true today, over a longer horizon she’s probably wrong for reasons described by Jeff Cohen (founder of the media watch group FAIR; posted at TruthDig, 29 January):

In the last year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. questioned US military interventions against progressive movements in the Third World by invoking a JFK quote: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”  Were he alive to witness the last three decades of US foreign policy, King might update that quote by noting: “Those who make secular revolution impossible will make extreme Islamist revolution inevitable.”

For decades beginning during the Cold War, US policy in the Islamic world has been aimed at suppressing secular reformist and leftist movements. Beginning with the CIA-engineered coup against a secular democratic reform government in Iran in 1953 (it was about oil), Washington has propped up dictators, coaching these regimes in the black arts of torture and mayhem against secular liberals and the left.

In these dictatorships, often the only places where people had freedom to meet and organize were mosques – and out of these mosques sometimes grew extreme Islamist movements. The Shah’s torture state in Iran was brilliant at cleansing and murdering the left – a process that helped the rise of the Khomeini movement and ultimately Iran’s Islamic Republic.

… One of the mantras on US television news all day Friday was: Be fearful of the democratic uprisings against US allies in Egypt (and Tunisia and elsewhere). After all, we were told by Fox News and CNN and Chris Matthews on MSNBC, it could end up as bad as when “our ally” in Iran was overthrown and the extremists came to power in 1979.  Such talk comes easy in US media where Egyptian victims of rape and torture in Mubarak’s jails are never seen. Where it’s rarely emphasized that weapons of repression used against Egyptian demonstrators are paid for by US taxpayers. Where Mubarak is almost always called “president” and almost never “dictator” (unlike the elected president of Venezuela).

When US media glibly talk about the Egyptian and Tunisian “presidents” being valued “allies in the war on terror,” it’s no surprise that they offer no details about the prisoners the US has renditioned to these “pro-Western” countries for torture.

The truth is that no one knows how these uprisings will end.  But revolution of some kind, as King said, seems inevitable. Washington’s corrupt Arab dictators will come down as surely (yet more organically) as that statue of Saddam, another former US ally.

Our fears are embedded in the odd history of our relations with Islam.  Saddam was secular ally against Iran, whose tyranny we overthrew — replaced by an Islamic regime.  Just as in Afghanistan we helped overthrew a secular regime (1979-1992) — which may result in an Islamic regime.  This is a complex issue; tomorrow’s post will discuss it more depth.

III.  Oil prices have spiked, probably with little reason

Rumors are circulating that the Saudi Princes might respond to rising geopolitical tensions by pumping more oil.   This would help Egypt’s government as well as the global economy.  Especially if the Brent spot price rise over $100, which is only 2% from here.  With the ability to boost production by at least 4 million barrels/day (a 5% increase to global supply) — and even more as a temporary surge — they can stabilize or bash down prices.

Off topic:  that we focus on the price of WTI (West Texas Intermediate oil) is another example of our increasingly absurd US-centric worldview.  Cushing, Oklahoma is no longer the heart of the oil world. 

IV.  It’s not about us

At the website of Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch (Assoc Prof of international affairs at George Washington U) says that “Obama’s handling Egypt pretty well“.  Excerpt:

It’s crucial to understand that the United States is not the key driver of the Egyptian protest movement. They do not need or want American leadership — and they most certainly are not interested in “vindicating” Bush’s freedom agenda or the Iraq war, an idea which almost all would find somewhere between laughable, bewildering, and deeply offensive. Suspicion of American intentions runs deep, as does folk wisdom about decades of U.S. collaboration with Mubarak. They are not really parsing Hilary Clinton’s adjectives.

This seems likely.  But note the disparaging reference to “folk wisdom” about the obvious-to-everyone-else role of the US in propping up repressive regimes around the world since WWII.  Adding another layer of absurdity, Lynch goes on to provide the usual patronizing viewpoint of the American geopolitical expert.  Red emphasis added.

What they do need, if they think about it, is for Obama to help broker an endgame from the top down — to impose restraints on the Egyptian military’s use of violence to repress protests, to force it to get the internet and mobile phones back online, to convince the military and others within the regime’s inner circle to ease Mubarak out of power, and to try to ensure that whatever replaces Mubarak commits to a rapid and smooth transition to civilian, democratic rule. And that’s what the administration is doing. The administration’s public statements and private actions have to be understood as not only offering moral and rhetorical support to the protestors, or as throwing bones to the Washington echo chamber, but as working pragmatically to deliver a positive ending to a still extremely tense and fluid situation.

My guess is that Lynch is wrong about this.  Many of the protestors, and certainly the leaders, have thought about it.   I doubt many in America (and fewer with no expertise in Egyptian history and culture) know what conclusions “they’ve” drawn.

V.  What do the people of Egypt think?

Articles about the riots by both experts and pundits tell us what the people of Egypt think.  Such as this by Stratfor:

“Despite Mubarak’s refusal to step down Jan. 28, the public’s positive perception of the military, seen as the only real gateway to a post-Mubarak Egypt, remained. It is unclear how long this perception will hold, especially as Egyptians are growing frustrated with the rising level of insecurity in the country and the army’s limits in patrolling the streets.”

Is this based on public opinion pools?  Doubtful.  Information from western experts guessing about the Egyptian Street?  If so, are these guesses as accurate as notoriously inaccurate forecasts of US election results by US experts?  Probably not.  Also, just as there is seldom “an” opinion of the American public (i.e.,  with 80% agreement), there are almost certainly a wide range of opinions today among the Egyptian people.

VI.  What should we do?

We’re not rulers of the world, and it’s both proper and realpolitik to let people choose their own political regime and leaders.  For an explanation of this commonsense answer we look to Bruce Riedel’s “Don’t Fear Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood“. 

The prospect of change in Egypt inevitably raises questions about the oldest and strongest opposition movement in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood , also known as Ikhwan. Can America work with an Egypt where the Ikhwan is part of a transition or even a new government?

The short answer is it is not our decision to make. Egyptians will decide the outcome, not Washington. We should not try to pick Egyptians’ rulers. Every time we have done so, from Vietnam’s generals to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, we have had buyer’s remorse.  But our interests are very much involved so we have a great stake in the outcome. Understanding the Brotherhood is vital to understanding our options.

Piedel is a  former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.

For another voice worth listening to see Pat Lang (Colonel, Special Forces, retired) in “Baradei = Bakhtiar? Who? What?“.  Especially this:  “In both instances the US dithered, torn between a liberal desire to see the quality of government improved in these places and the advice of curmudgeons (like me) who advised caution based on the unpredictability of outcomes.”

VII.  Other posts in theis series about Egypt

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