The recent bloody clashes and unrest in Egypt is merely a foretaste of what could easily occur during elections next month. The latest violence between Egypt’s Christian Copts and the army involved a protest over a whole series of church burnings and killings at the hands of Muslims — and ended with the army driving armored vehicles at top speed into the crowd and crushing people to death. It left 26 dead and over 200 wounded.
The Copts, who comprise about 10% of Egypt’s 80 million population mostly supported the ouster of Mubarak. They’re one of the earliest groups who are likely destined to be very disappointed at the way the ‘Arab Spring’ turns out in Egypt. One of my sources on the ground tells me that if elections were held today, there’s absolutely no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood would win a majority in both the Majilis Al-Sha’ab ( “People’s Assembly”) and the Majilis Al-Shura, the lower and upper houses in what passes for Egypt’s parliament.They have proven far better organized than the group we’ll refer to as the “Twitter Liberals” and are in position to dominate the next Egyptian government provided elections are held as scheduled.
Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) controlled the last national assembly. While it no longer exists, its members are active among a few newly formed secular parties whose agenda is to band together to block the Muslim Brotherhood from establishing a religious state. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood upped the ante by giving the military leaders now ruling Egypt an ultimatum: former NDP members of Parliament are to be banned from participating in the upcoming elections.
As in most Muslim countries, Egypt’s Army is one of the few parts of society that actually functions. It’s an entity unto itself that owns about one third of Egypt’s economy and supports a number of wealthy businessmen with Army connections. At present, the Egyptian Army rules Egypt through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The big question for the Army is whether to continue to assume its normal role in Egypt as guardian of the status quo or to stand aside and allow the ascension of an Islamist government, which would entail the loss of a number of its current privileges.
That’s the choice the Egyptian Army is going to have to make fairly soon, and by all accounts there’s a deep division within the military on which way to go. Even worse, whatever choice they actually make is going to lead to more outbreaks of violence and instability, the last thing Egypt needs right now. The country’s economy is on the verge of free fall. Tourism is at historic lows thanks to the scenes of violence on television and the publicity of the Lara Logan gang rape, foreign investment is almost non-existent. Food and commodity prices have risen dramatically and the country’s stock market has lost half its value.
According to my sources, a number of wealthy Egyptians have already sent a lot of their wealth overseas, mostly to Europe and the Emirates, and many of those who can have made arrangements to leave the country if the situation continues to deteriorate. That will likely include a steady emigration of Egypt’s Copts, a number of whom tend to own businesses and be better educated than many of their Muslim neighbors.
It’s especially interesting to watch the Obama Administration’s reaction to this. While America is very unpopular among the majority of average Egyptians, at present, Egypt is still a linchpin of U.S. strategy in the region, although nothing like what it was under Mubarak. The country guards the Suez Canal, allowing the quick transit of shipments of oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe and American Naval forces between the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa with the large U.S. base at Djibouti and the Gulf. Egypt also allows the overflight of American military aircraft. In exchange for that, Egypt gets $2 billion a year in U.S. military aid and was recently the recipient of an additional $1 billion in debt forgiveness.
While the current military government has made few changes in the status quo as yet, there’s no telling what could happen in the near future. Every sign points towards either a Muslim Brotherhood Islamist government or a repressive military dictatorship that would need to appeal to both Islamism, the Brotherhood and the Egyptian popular disdain of America. Either scenario would entail a large change in Egypt’s future relationship with the U.S. Another wild card involves al-Qaeda head Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian and ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader. According to my sources, the reason Osama bin-Laden was fingered for assassination was because of a dispute between bin-Laden, who wanted to keep the organization rooted in AfPak, and Zawahiri, who saw new opportunities in the Arab world with the coming of the Arab Spring and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In view of that, many of the Obama Administration’s actions towards Egypt’s military government are puzzling, to say the least.
The administration has ordered the transfer of a number of advanced U.S. military systems to Egypt, including the M1A1 Abrams tank, 24 F-16C/D Block 50/52 aircraft (at a cost of $3.2 billion Egypt doesn’t really have to spend), E-2 AWACS, and Raytheon’s ACES Electronic Countermeasures system among others. Since Egypt’s military is already far more advanced and more than a match for that Libya or the Sudan, one has to wonder why the transfer of all this hardware is taking place, since the only other country Egypt has a border with is Israel. Perhaps that’s not coincidental.
Not only do these transfers destabilize peace in the region, but Egypt has already been caught numerous times violating its end user agreements by illegally sharing U.S. technology with people like the Chinese. And then there’s the concern over Egypt’s ongoing clandestine illegal nuclear program, something of which the Obama Administration is fully aware. In view of Egypt’s precarious political situation, it’s disquieting that the Obama Administration is taking the unnecessary risk of having sophisticated U.S. weaponry in the hands of a hostile regime. While President Obama is even more of a fetishist for the ever-elusive ‘Arab Democracy’ than his predecessor, even a casual observer of what’s going on in Egypt ought to understand the inherent danger.
While Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak might have been deposed anyway, the fact is that President Obama’s engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood and his backing of Mubarak’s ouster gave things a significant shove in that direction. In later years, we could very well be talking about President Obama’s blunders with Egypt the same way we currently discuss President Carter’s failures in dealing with Iran.