Small World: Egypt in Crisis, a glossary

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Making sense of the current turmoil in Egypt is no simple task, especially for those who have not spent years puzzling out the riddles of the Sphinx. Let me offer a guide to some elements — without claiming they come without bias:

Factions. The press tells us there are three groups contending for power in Egypt: the Army, the Moslem Brotherhood and the secular liberals. True, but not the whole truth.

The Army is divided into two parts, the officer corps and the conscripts. The former are the beneficiaries of what is effectively a state within a state — set off and immune from civilian government oversight with its own economy (producing everything from cars to mineral water to crops.) Notwithstanding its special privileges, the Army is the nation’s most respected institution. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s first native-born ruler since Cleopatra, was the Army’s founding father. Presidents Sadat and Mubarak and today’s ruler General al-Sisi ride on his distant coattails.

Then, there are the ordinary troops who are, effectively, the brothers of men on the other side of the barricades; both equally religious. How long will they shoot their kin? Quite awhile probably, given the nature of military discipline and the fear of losing your own life if mutinying. But maybe not forever.

A third part of the military faction is the police, like the army conscripts, poorly paid and strictly disciplined. Possibly a branch of the police are the thugs in civilian garb who beat up peaceful demonstrators and who wield weapons pretending to be MB. The Moslem Brotherhood, too, is a disciplined organization, having existed underground throughout much of its 85-year existence. It too has its currents, ranging from conservative old timers to liberal and radical youth (their number expanded since the massacres of recent weeks). The MB draws its strength from the deeply religious Egyptian people (at all levels) and the gripping traditionalism of the lower orders.

In the last parliamentary elections, the MB and the extremist Salafis drew close to 70% of the vote. Most observers fail to note that ousted President Morsi had to take account of the extremists to his right as well as the liberals to his left. The MB is hated and feared by the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates because the MB advocates democracy and the monarchies can’t abide that thought.

Finally, the so-called secular liberals are equally divided. They comprise sophisticated, Westernized free-thinkers (the kind Western reporters love to interview), but also remnants of the Mubarak regime, Christians, women’s rights advocates and the monied classes. They have allied themselves with the military, in part, because they have done poorly at the polls. In the parliamentary elections their candidates gathered maybe 30% of the vote. They have been reluctant to cooperate with the MB regime, perhaps because they would be out-voted and thereby compromised.

I suspect that many secular intellectuals object strongly to the massacres inflicted by the Army/police and will drop out as did Nobel Prize winner El-Baradei. They are essential, however, to give the Army a civilian cover.

U.S. Influence. In brief, not what it used to be and even that wasn’t all that much. In earlier times, the United States would try to persuade the Egyptian government to take steps that we deemed necessary and sensible — end subsidies on basic foods, for example; they would never do so if their immediate survival was considered at risk. They would quietly facilitate military cooperation but would not permit, say, establishing a public base.

The sanctions of suspending military assistance are unlikely to produce the intended results. They will be seen, instead, as harming the Egyptian nation, not its military leaders. Just as in Iran, sanctions, threats and lectures by Americans and other outsiders only lead the citizenry to hunker down and draw closer together.

Deceit and Distortions. The Army now maintains total control of the national media; it fully manipulates film and approves patently false assertions (Obama’s half brother funds the MB). Anyone in the pro-Morsi MB is labeled ”terrorist.” Were the economic troubles of President Morsi perhaps manipulated? In the days after his removal, gas lines disappeared, electricity cuts ended and police protection resumed.

One eternal truth. America can prod and suggest, but only Egyptians can decide their future. With humility, we should stand by our traditional principles without vainly seeking short-term advantage.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer who worked in Egypt.

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