The Egyptian military has given President Mohamed Morsi until today to resolve the country’s political crisis or else it will step in. “If the people’s demands are not met,” Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, announced on Monday, the army “will have to disclose its own future plan.”
Aside from promising that “no one party will be excluded or marginalized,” Sisi failed to elaborate on his roadmap to restore stability to Egypt. That’s perhaps because no one, not the government, not Morsi’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Freedom and Justice party, not the army, nor even the protesters themselves know what it is that the 3 million people who have taken to the streets of Egypt are demanding. The unhappy reality is that in all likelihood, the vast majority of the protesters do not want anything except to end the chaos in their country, which they apparently aim to do by gorging themselves on violence.
The White House has called for early elections and warned the military against a coup. The bigger problem is that the Egyptian army has no plan to stabilize the country. And even if the army takes over, what price is it willing to pay to keep the streets quiet? Shooting protesters? How many? Egyptians, contrary to received wisdom, do not love the army, or else hundreds of people wouldn’t have flashed laser lights at a military helicopter the other night in an effort to blind the pilot and crash it. The army can’t bring order because the energies unleashed with the fall of Mubarak two-plus years ago can’t be put back in the bottle.
The Egyptian army has only one card left to play. Western journalists and other true believers in the promise of the Arab Spring may be shocked by the suggestion that Egypt may be headed to war with Israel in the not-too-distant future. But as the country implodes, war has become the easy way out. It doesn’t matter that the Egyptian army doesn’t want another catastrophic contest with Israel—neither did Anwar Sadat 40 years ago when he saved Egypt by going to war with Israel, which in turn helped him acquire the superpower patronage of the United States.
Of course, some prominent American commentators believe that the point of the current demonstrations in Egypt is to revive the liberal democratic goals of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. However, it’s worth noting that the main goal of the revolution, after pushing out Mubarak, was to win a political system with free and fair elections in which Egyptians would get to choose their own government. That was in fact accomplished—and Morsi won. Academic experts and Western journalists might be perturbed that there is too much reliance on Islamic law in Egypt’s new Constitution, but many Egyptians believe in Islamic law—and people do not typically ransack their own country to protest amendments to a legal document.
A more relevant complaint perhaps is that Morsi has empowered his own party at the expense of others. However, in Egypt this is not a political problem but a cultural one. In a country that treats wasta, or connections, like a civic virtue, every businessman, bureaucrat, and village mayor is going to employ his own people, so why would it be different for the country’s top political official? There is no Egyptian president who would not do precisely what Morsi has done in stacking his government with allies.
Egyptians are definitely angry at the state of their country’s economy. But the fact that staples like bread, rice and oil have skyrocketed is to be blamed almost entirely on the fact that protesters have filled the streets since January 2011. In bringing down Mubarak and prosecuting the regime’s technocrats who won high marks from the IMF for reforming the Egyptian economy and attracting foreign direct investment, the revolutionaries ensured that it would be at least a generation before any Egyptian official sought to implement the same policies.
It was in order to avoid unrest that Morsi balked at cutting subsidies and otherwise reforming the economy to satisfy the IMF’s requirements for a $4.8 billion loan. If Qatar wasn’t floating the Morsi government a few billion dollars every couple of months, Egypt would starve. And how do the Egyptians repay Doha’s munificence? By claiming that Morsi’s fall will return Qatar to its proper and, compared to Egypt, insignificant place in regional affairs. Maybe Qatar’s newly enthroned emir will decide he’d rather build more air-conditioned soccer stadiums than feed the inhabitants of the Nile River valley.
Up until two and a half years ago, tourism was one of the country’s main sources of revenue, but political instability has kept visitors away—as has violence directed against foreigners. No one is going to visit a country where American college students are stabbed to death in broad daylight and Dutch journalists are gang-raped in Tahrir Square, ground zero of Egypt’s glorious revolution.
What is unfolding in Egypt is not about politics or the economy, it is simply a medieval carnival of grievance and rage, where every appetite, no matter how vicious, can be indulged, because no one feels a stake in preserving any larger, inclusive whole—however that whole is described. It is easier for Western commentators to get a fix on the chaos when it appears to be motivated by religious hatred. Last week, four members of Egypt’s minuscule Shia community were surrounded, beaten, and stabbed to death in their village outside Cairo. Since the mob was incited to murder by a Salafi sheikh, it was clear who was responsible for this bit of butchery, an Islamist fanatic.
The chain of accountability is a little more difficult for those same Western analysts to track when it’s the anti-Morsi forces who are drawing blood. All of the Muslim Brotherhood’s offices across Egypt have been stormed, and the national headquarters was torched. Sixteen people are dead, allegedly including Brotherhood supporters, whose apparent sin was backing a political party that won a free election—the last one that Egypt is likely to see for quite a while.
If foreign journalists and analysts have failed to be appropriately appalled by the demonstrations, it is because in their worldview, the Islamists are the bad guys and the secularists are the good guys. Now that Egyptians are mad at Morsi, the thinking goes, the Egyptians will get their liberal revolution back—along with that cool guy from Google. Reporters are told in man-on-the-street interviews that Morsi is the problem. The complaint should sound familiar because that’s exactly what the same protesters said about Mubarak. The one thing everyone is definitely agreed on is that the problem with Egyptian society isn’t the Egyptians themselves.
A competent leader, likely not Morsi, will soon come to see that he has no choice but to make a virtue of necessity and export the one commodity that Egypt has in abundance—violence. So, why not bind the warring, immature, and grandiose Egyptian factions together in a pact against Israel, the country’s sole transcendent object of loathing? Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why Egypt’s venomous strains of anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic sentiment have not yet hit fever pitch. Yes, Morsi doesn’t want to get the White House angry. And there’s also the obvious fact that Egyptians are too divided against themselves right now to be unified against anyone else. But that can’t last for long, or else Egypt will implode.
So, here are the facts that Egyptians and Western reporters alike would rather not face: There is simply no way that today’s Egypt can feed its own people, or fuel the tractors that harvest its crops—let alone attract tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment to grow a hi-tech miracle along the banks of the Nile. That’s fantasyland stuff—like the fantasy of an American-style constitutional democracy run by the Muslim Brotherhood and guaranteed by the Egyptian army.
So, what’s left? A short war today—precipitated by a border incident in Sinai, or a missile gone awry in the Gaza Strip, and concluded before the military runs out of the ammunition that Washington will surely not resupply—will reunify the country and earn Egypt money from an international community eager to broker peace. Taking up arms against Israel will also return Egypt to its former place of prominence in an Arab world that is adrift in a sea of blood. But even more important is the fact that there is no other plausible way out: Sacrificing thousands of her sons on the altar of war is the only way to save Mother Egypt from herself.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).