Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Dubiously-Friendly Gift-of-the-Nile and Her Malcontented Populace

In response to my favorable comparison of the situation in Turkey with that of Egypt, the Elephant's Child wrote:
Didn't realise things have been taking a nose dive in Egypt. In my mind, it's fixed as a "good" Middle Eastern country.
Well, Egypt is still a 'good' ME country in context of the geopolitical scheme that lasted from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers. In other words, a post-Cold War, September 10 mentality that valued "stability" over all else. Egypt is at peace with her neighbors, notably Israel, and generally represents the reliably quasi-secular-nationalist bloc of the Arab League, in which Egypt is the power player. Egypt is also a US ally of sorts, insofar as the terms of her peace with Israel include generous monetary and military blood money aid from the US.

The problem is, such stability needs a future. An autocracy like Egypt is 'stable' for now (her Ministry of the Interior is rumored to be the worlds largest employer) but that sort of heavy-handedness is unsustainable, to co-opt some Green-speak. The Muslim Brotherhood (incidentally the parent organization of such better-known children as HAMAS, Palestinian Jihad, and al-Qaeda) is a pervasive presence and continues to grow stronger. This is President-for-life Mubarak's permanent bogeyman to justify delaying his country's ever-promised democratization: if Egyptians could vote, the Brotherhood would come to power and Egypt would become a Sunni theocracy to rival the Shii* republic in Iran.

He's probably right. The Brotherhood's popularity continues to grow; though they officially banned, a particular bloc of 'Independents' (wink-wink nudge-nudge) holds 88 seats, or about 20% of the Egyptian Parliament. The problem is, the Islamists can't be held at bay forever by heavy-handed political persecution. The random arrests, beatings, threats, torture, and disappearances that Mubarak uses -- like so many presidents-for-life before him -- only serve to keep the Brotherhood underground and feed into its narrative of oppression. The fact that US money supports his government only serves to tie him to the Great Satan while confirming their claims of American hypocrisy. Mubarak is still strong, but he's not getting any younger. His son Gamal is widely expected to succeed him, and has made all the right reformist gestures, but then, so did Dad, once upon a time.

Long story short, Egypt is still an ally, for now, and only by the narrowest of definitions. The future, however looks bleaker. Until I start seeing some real reforms, Egypt will remain with Nigeria and Pakistan on my worry-list. Which is to say, countries I would not be too surprised to visit before the end of my Army career, and not for the souvenirs.

*Okay, I hate to be a stickler** here, but my senses of English style and Arabic grammar can't let me use "Sunni" and "Shia" in the same construction. So here's a quick lesson: sunna and shia are nouns which can mean both the religious movements and mass nouns for the people who follow them. Thus "clerical hierarchies are characteristic of Shia Islam" and "the Sunna dominated Saddam's Iraq". On the other hand, sunni and shii are adjectives: "a historic Shii mosque", "a traditional Sunni wedding". The -i forms are also used as individual nouns: "three Sunni gunmen", "he's a Shii". Some of these usages, however, roll rather uncomfortably off the tongue, complicated by the fact that the root of shia/shii includes a sound (the infamous "ayn") unique to the Semitic languages. This sound (along with its evil cousin the "hamza") is the reason for the incomprehensible assortment of apostrophes (both normal and inverse) one finds thrown about transliterated Arabic, as if they made anything any clearer.

**Okay, okay. You got me. I live to be a stickler.

1 comment:

Elephantschild said...

Stickler runs in the family. Witness my annoying habit of pointing out to anyone within range the cattleya orchids on the bottle of vanilla extract.