Small World: Egypt, cry the beloved country

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Every worthy foreign service officer is obliged to maintain balance in assessing the country with which he is involved. Avoid “clientelism” is the rule. Understand them, yes. Identify with them, not at all. Respect them, sure. Feel affection for them, nothing doing.

I plead guilty when it comes to Egypt. I worked there two years as a vice consul in the 1950s and four years in the 1980s as deputy ambassador. My attachment to the country — often severely tested — persists. It is a poor place — increasingly so — with limited and poorly managed resources. It is a hard life for its now 80 million (20 million in 1964) citizens. Yet, they are overwhelmingly kind, intelligent, generous and full of good humor. They couldn’t have lasted over 6,000 years as a nation without the talent for laughing at their own distress.

But now, I don’t know what to think. Last week, around 700 people were sentenced to death for the killing of one policeman in a riot. The trial lasted a few minutes and followed a similar tribunal a few weeks earlier which imposed the death penalty on some 500 men (later reduced to life sentences, except for 37 individuals.)

It used to be that the judiciary was the only honorable and independent Egyptian institution under the rule of its dictators. Now it seems to follow the guidance of military officers who overthrew the freely elected government of the Moslem Brotherhood, a non-extremist, but inexperienced and incompetent group. Protests followed and then a harsh crackdown. On Aug. 14, over 1,000 were killed, thousands have been jailed.

In the past, Egyptians have always been able to muddle through. After the Israeli attacks in 1956 and 1967, the country was devastated, but survived and managed to rebuild materially and morally, eventually making peace with Israel. I’m not sure they can manage it this time; prolonged civil strife seems in prospect.

The military rulers think they can bring security by using the “iron fist” until rebellion is quelled. I think they are wrong. Egypt is a deeply religious nation; nowhere in the Middle East has a movement led by Islam been crushed. The more people who are killed, the larger the ranks of the insurgents.

Even more important than security is the economy. Egypt’s poorly trained work force with limited capital and shoddy infrastructure will create an unmanageable level of discontent. The famous Egyptian patience and the temporary infusion of cash from Saudi Arabia will not be enough to avoid the impending disaster.

Washington is unhappily not in a position to help. In part because of the turmoil and confusion of a revolution in progress and, in part, because of a lack of clear direction of U.S. policy. Obama and the rest of us are the targets of intense anti-American feeling. Our giving the military a few helicopters won’t relieve that problem.

Egypt may not perform as critical a role as it did under Nasser and, to a lesser extent, under Sadat and Mubarak, but it still can influence events and trends in a turbulent region. Libya to the west and Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to the east are unstable and who knows what lies ahead for Israel-Palestine and the Persian Gulf. Then, to the south Ethiopia builds a dam, which could threaten the main source of Nile water.

Can Egypt manage? Three significant groups contest power: the mass of traditional, deeply religious supporters of the Moslem Brotherhood who feel their election victory was stolen from them; the semi-secular, semi-Westernized, primarily big city people who helped make the revolution and felt the MB was stealing it; and the Army which is effectively a nation within a nation with its own economy (farms, factories, stores) and deep inter-group loyalties. Forthcoming elections predictably will put General al-Sisi in charge. We shall see, but he doesn’t seem the charismatic figure the nation needs at this stage.

There we have it. A tough test for those with abiding affection for “the Gift of the Nile.” If my description is accurate, there remains only one option for us outsiders. Stand aside and wait. Only Egyptians can shape their own future

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Please follow and like us: