international analysis and commentary

Setting realistic goals for Egypt: a Turkish path

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If it had not been important, I would have been amused by all the breathless and utterly ahistorical cheerleading following the high point of the ill-starred Arab Spring, when the Egyptian people at last dispatched the tired Hosni Mubarak to the sidelines. I doubt I’ll soon forget the fascinated American television channels covering the every utterance of heretofore obscure Cairo bloggers, as though they were the embodiment of Thomas Jefferson, and as though the Egyptian street was going to support a bunch of kids with no political experience, no organization behind them, and absolutely no link with the greater mass of the Egyptian people living on $2 a day.

Of course the tragi-comedy is now well and truly over. The first iron rule of revolutions, particularly those outside of modern Europe – that the most organized groups win out – quickly shunted the naïve liberals to the sidelines. As was the case in France (Jacobins), Russia (Bolsheviks), China (Maoists), almost immediately the two groups in the country that were true political organizations – the army and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – began the uneasy co-habitation that defined inter-regnum following the end of the Mubarak era.

The second iron law of revolutions, which ought to be known as “the Nicholas I rule”, put an end to this unsustainable partnership, securing the army’s hold on power. In essence the Nicholas I rule amounts to this: If rulers are prepared to ruthlessly use force to destroy their opponents, they will safely die in bed. Only if they equivocate regarding their enemies, as was the strategy of Louis XVI of France or Nicholas II of Russia, does a bloody end await.

The MB was not able or willing to dispatch the army; General Al-Sissi had no such limitations, and now sits as the new leader of his country. For anyone studying history this bleak forecast was as foreseeable as it was almost entirely overlooked. Now that even the most naïve supporter of the Arab Spring sits in dejection, perhaps it is time to look at what can actually be accomplished in Egypt, as opposed to what analysts might like to happen, a critical and almost always overlooked distinction.

If wildly overconfident assessments of the prospects for Egypt’s seamless and magical transition to democracy were the norm before, so now an equally unreasoned gloom has settled over the punditocracy. But this is as wrongheaded as was the earlier euphoria. Here is a simple roadmap for what America and the West can do to help Egypt along.

First, and this is where realism always starts, we must look at Egypt as it actually is, warts and all, and devise a practical strategy based entirely on this real-world assessment. In this case, we see a country which remains dominated by the military as it has been since Nasser in the early 1950s, which while still important (most populous state in its region, the Suez Canal, relatively close ties to the west and Israel) is nearing an economic freefall, and is in decline. Its continued relevance makes crafting a long-term strategy to salvage the place worth American time, just as its economic weaknesses (and ultimate need for a serious IMF loan) give America more leverage than has been acknowledged over the past few weeks. In other words, Egypt is worth it and we do have some genuine cards to play there.

Second, what does success look like in Egypt? Given where we are, the best case scenario would be a situation wherein Egypt over time follows the trajectory of Turkey, another long-time American ally that until recently had a preponderant military as its primary political fact of life. First came economic reform, bolstered by technocrats and political leaders like Prime Minister and then President Turgut Ozal, who from 1983-93 modernized the Turkish economy with the explicit support of the military. As technocrats are currently the window-dressing for the present interim Egyptian government, it is entirely plausible to think a similar technocratic/military alliance is the future for Egypt.

Of course with modernization, having let the capitalist genie out of the bottle, the Turkish generals found themselves unable to shut it again. Gradually their power receded until current Prime Minister Erdogan has succeeded in decisively limiting the military’s political clout. With economic modernization inevitably follows political diffusion. This is the basic process America must aim to further in Egypt if it wants to actually bolster its long-term ally. In the short- to medium-run this means the focus must be more about economics than politics, more about IMF stabilization rules than constitutions, more about privatization than people power.

Third, and here again Turkey serves as an apt model, the American obsession with shortening history’s timeframe must be done away with. It took Turkey, which in many ways started with better economic prospects, three-plus decades to make the transition to stable non-military dominated ally; it will surely take Egypt longer. We must get our heads out of the 24-hour news cycle and think strategically, all the while dealing with the myriad shorter-term problems that Egypt’s inauspicious present circumstances throw up. The goal must be to not let these shorter-term irritants get in the way of the good news that over a long period of time Egypt can be put on a far more propitious glide path, one that might even end in a form of democratic rule.

This is a very different way of looking at the world from what has dominated the discussions about Egypt over the past few years. Again, the good news is that given the shambles of what has gone before, we are at a hinge point, where a chastened and more receptive global audience might just try this very different approach to right Egypt’s ship of state.

This leads me to the last realist admonition: It is primarily up to the people of Egypt to save themselves. Despite the conspiracy theory-loving Cairo Street, America and the West did not destroy the Arab Spring; that was done by Arabs, just as their long-term rejuvenation is primarily in their hands as well. Egypt must take ownership for its predicament and its attempted renaissance, just as America and the West must exhibit a new humility as to how much they have the power to affect things half a world away. If that alone can be accomplished, it would be something indeed.