Egypt — the Calm or the Storm?

by Henry Precht

When General Amr Ibn al-As captured Egypt for Islam in 640, he sent this message to his commander:

I give you Egypt, its fields are ever green, its Nile is ever flowing and its people are the slaves of whoever would rule them.

That description held true for the centuries when Egypt was ruled by Arabs, Mamelukes, Turks, the French and British and even after Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser — the first native-born Egyptian ruler since Cleopatra — took over in 1952. Army rule became much like the control exercised by a superior foreign power.

That is, until two years ago when Egyptians defied their ruler Hosni Mubarak and, with anti-historic defiance, tossed him out. Now the army has reasserted itself, demanding with heavy loss of life that the slaves return to their customary place in the pharaonic hierarchy. Hosni Mubarak, their former protector, is to be released from his prison cell.

Over a thousand men and women were killed by the army in a few weeks. Will the slaves submit? On the answer to that question rests the future of the Middle East and the US role therein.

In the past when Egyptians have violently demonstrated their ire — as against the British pre-Nasser — the impulse has not lasted long. When I was a vice consul in Alexandria in the 1960s, a mob burned our library in Cairo after Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. When the US was accused of aiding Israel in the 1967 war, youth attacked our consulate. In both cases, Egyptians came back in a few days to check out a book or apply for a visa. A dozen years later, those who had seethed with anger at Israel and the US made peace and welcomed the visiting American president.

The same flaring and then fading of anger happened when Anwar Sadat raised the price of bread in the 1970s and when security police rioted over low pay under Mubarak. In both cases, the regime bought off the discontented. But no Egyptian regime has ever felt comfortably secure with its people. After Sadat was assassinated in 1981, army troops manned sandbagged position on Cairo street corners for weeks. Coincidently, the nation’s huge police force was an important way of alleviating the problem of youth unemployment.

Washington should see its declining fortunes and lack of influence — both in the disdainful eyes of the people in the streets and the men shooting them — as yet another Egyptian rising against foreign masters. The Russians in the 1970s, Americans now.

Still, 1000 dead — almost all of them unarmed youth, demanding justice, dignity and the democracy they had been promised. All their demands made in the name of religion. Will revenge for the martyrs outbid the army’s appeals to nationalism and the crowds’ fear of deadly reprisals? With many of their leaders locked up without charges and the media under tight regime control, it seems possible widespread revolt can be quieted and prevented. But outbursts of al Qaeda-style violence and sporadic displays of anger in demonstrations also seem quite probable in the months ahead if no army-Muslim Brotherhood deal is achieved. None is now in prospect.

A deal — implicit if not explicit — might be reached if the MB called off future mass demonstrations and if the army responded by downing their weapons. A few “reliable” MB prisoners might be released and they would quietly drop the call for Mohamed Morsi’s return to the presidency. Step by unadvertised step, ever so gradually, normality might, just might, return to Egypt.

This scenario depends on the outcome of a looming disaster: the predictable collapse of Egypt’s economy unless outside help arrives. Even — especially — the angry must eat. Who will feed them? Russia? China? Saudi Arabia? Bread riots, driven by a revolutionary and religious sense of wrong can again set the nation and perhaps the region aflame.

Or maybe the legacy of centuries of slavery will re-emerge to restore peace. If not, the ever-flowing Nile will be red with blood.

Photo: Graffiti sprayed by protesters on an army tank in Tahrir Square on Feb. 3, 2011: “Long live the revolution, and down with Mubarak.” Credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.


One Comment

  1. “It’s my way or the highway”, through the barrel of a gun. This seems to be where things have gotten down to. The population has increased, the government seems unable to satisfy the basic needs without the use of force of some persuasion or other. This may be a lesson in disguise, though I won’t hold my breath that the “light bulb” will blink on. Perhaps if the powers to be, could remove the blinders upon their self righteous position[s], sit down at the table without any precondition[s], a clean slate for both sides, listen to each other, there might be a solution. Face it, there are just too many people for the continued old ways of management/control. So far in the first years of this 21st Century, the only item for humanity, has been death and destruction, brought on by the old methods. For all the advances in technology, it seems that only the Arms merchants are out in front. There are too many countries trying to influence the outcome[s] in the M.E., all for different reasons, but selfish none the less.

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