The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Cold Comfort for Egypt


Paul Mutter writes in with a Egypt-Russia comparison.

With the Muslim Brotherhood taking a clear majority in the parliamentary elections (followed by the Nour Party), SCAF now finds itself with a more concrete array of forces to work to manage. 

SCAF is neither incompetent nor omnipotent. But "uncivil society" – a term historian Stephen Kotkin uses to describe the Eastern European equivalent of "the hybrid military-civilian deep state and its manipulations" – has strong roots in Egypt. And while many former Warsaw Pact nations offer encouraging examples of how newly emerging civil society can mitigate the old guard's machinations, there is one former Warsaw Pact member whose post-communist history does not offer an encouraging example for Egypt's near-future, and that is Russia. The convergence of Egypt's civilian and military management with the aspirations of both the Brothers' and Salafis' leadership.

Rodric Braithwaite, London's last ambassador to the USSR, could just as easily have written these words regarding Washington's relationship with Egypt:

We lectured the Russians on their corrupt politics and their violations of human rights. We gave them expensive and often irrelevant economic advice. We insisted they adopt western foreign policy aims, but ignored what they thought were their legitimate interests... We interfered in their neighbourhood. Our advice was discredited as Russians came to believe that we were untrue to our own principles and unable even to run our much vaunted liberal economy properly.

Thirty-plus years of engagement with Sadat, Mubarak and now, SCAF,  have meted out a similar legacy for Egyptian civil society: an unpopular foreign policy in the near-abroad, clear human rights hypocrisies and questionable economic assistance that mostly benefited entrenched party hacks and up-and-coming oligarchs within the walls of Heliopolis Palace; giving Egypt a ruling elite not unlike the oligarchs who called at Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin. An oligarchy that, as in Russia, included the leader's own family circle, making anti-corruption prosecutions extremely difficult. The coziness between Yeltsin and Clinton was not lost on Russians. And 30 years of warm embraces between Mubarak and US presidents hasn't been lost on the Egyptian people.

Mubarak's order was crumbling, and it was apparent that the U.S., caught off guard by the scale of the demonstrations and fence-sitting of the military, was not in a position to use its muscle to help its old friend stay in power. His cronies decided to take their chances by establishing themselves as the power brokers for a future order. Like the supposed "liberals" of Russia, they will only offer new freedoms with strings attached.

But despite these daunting challenges, civil society in Egypt (and now, Russia) continues to protest against the troika of military-intelligence cliques, well-connected corporatists and pliant parliamentarians that dominate the political scenes. Still the power brokers, the throne whisperers, SCAF will strive ever harder to set the tone for post-Mubarak politics. The leaders of the US and Israel, but not Tahrir, will be on their side.


PostsPaul MutterEgypt, deepstate