Egypt…Still Eternal?

by Henry Precht

I spent six years of my Foreign Service career in Egypt during the 1960s and early 80s and got to know the country fairly well. Over recent weeks I have been trying to make sense of the wintery Arab Spring that has descended.

In my last assignment, when as number two in the Cairo embassy I used to brief congressmen and other visiting VIPs, my opening pitch went like this: “All the world, they say, is composed of a mixture of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Everything, that is, except Egypt. Egypt is made up of four different elements: People, ideology, oil and water. The tragedy of Egypt is that it has too much of the first two and too little of the second two.”

Still true, especially when you mix religion with ideology.

If I were still in the same business today, I would say, “The people’s chosen leader Mohamed Morsi and chosen party the Moslem Brotherhood, are hard pressed from two sides: Radical Islamic Salafis on the right and secular liberals (including old regime remnants) on the left. Each of them is trying to bring Morsi down so that they may inherit power. Such egotism hasn’t been exhibited in Egypt since Pharaoh Akhenaten. They appear willing to destroy Egypt in order to destroy Morsi.

That isn’t all Morsi has to worry about. Trying to pull him down from the lower depths are the football thugs, an anarchic force that has been building for years. They are Egypt’s answer to the civil war militias of Lebanon, the komitehs of revolutionary Iran and the rebels of Libya and Syria — young men without hope who can only express themselves with violence. I suspect they are hired or sometimes joined by the other three groups – Salafis, MB and seculars.

“If that wasn’t enough to make Cleopatra leave for Rome, there is on top of all this strife the weight of a dismal economy, pressing down on the regime and its opponents. Peace and ordinary life cannot be achieved in Egypt until the economy re-starts. And the economy cannot regain life until there is a measure of peace and harmony.

“I haven’t mentioned the ‘foreign hand’ of alleged outside manipulation of events that has always made an appearance and received the blame when there is trouble. So far, it seems not to be a prominent factor, but don’t give up on it. In the minds of conspiracy theorists, Israel, the US and the rich Persian Gulf states may be glimpsed waiting off stage in the shadows.

“How is this cycle to be broken? In the past when troubles flared and mobs ran wild, they burned a library and went home, coming by the next day to check out a book or seek a visa. We know Egyptians to be resilient, with a sense of humor, tolerant and understanding of others and ready to patch up what doesn’t work. This time, however, politics looks different — more like a football game: Winning is all-important: ‘if I don’t win, I’ve been cheated and will seek revenge until my ego is recognized.’

“The obvious answer to this tragic question is a charismatic leader – a Nasser or Khomeini who can restore order as much by force of personality as by armed strength. That person isn’t likely to be a transfigured Morsi. Is there maybe a colonel waiting in the wings?”

As the foregoing ramble makes abundantly clear, I don’t have any good answers. Nobody does. We have to rely on those qualities that have kept Egypt going for millennia to reassert themselves and put the country back on track to a better future. How long a wait? Nobody knows.

Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad

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.