The deaths in Egypt this past week have been regrettable. But take a step back and remove unhelpful misty-eyed sentiment from the equation, and it becomes apparent that there are silver linings in the storm clouds raging over Cairo
Tainted Image Of Political Islamism
Far from uniting the country, the Brotherhood have allowed themselves to be associated with instability and strife. Unable or unwilling to collaborate with fellow islamists or secular moderates, they have lost a golden opportunity to introduce Turkish style electorally palatable Islam into the Arab world.
In their defence, the Brotherhood were always going to struggle. Whereas as Turkey had the prerequisites for democracy to take root (a free press, developed middle class, trade unions etc), few if any Arab States have these core institutions embedded in society. But the Brotherhood didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Decades underground may have led to a sense of impatience in the senior ranks of the party, and a desire to make up for lost time. Equally, the leadership of the Brotherhood may have felt pressured by the hardline grassroots, and didn’t want to be seen as going soft once among the trappings of power.
Still, the deposed President Mohamed Morsi alienated all but a hard-core constituency by devoting his energy to seizing control of Egypt’s institutions rather than implementing policies to revive its paralysed economy and heal political divisions. Political Islam has suffered as a result of this, with liberals in the Arab world, unable to unite among themselves, now seriously judging the creaking, kleptomaniac, authoritarian status quo is better than the risk of democracy.
Geopolitical Victory For The West
Current Western policy in the region is a direct descendant of the “surrogate regime” policy piloted by Britain and adopted by Nixon. No longer able to directly control regions through colonial set ups, the West selected and supported a handful of countries that would dominate those around them. In Africa it was Zaire, in South America it was Brazil, and in the Middle East it was Egypt and Saudi Arabia (the Shar’s Iran was insufficiently supported by Carter and lost as an asset). Russia has lost two of its three proxies (Libya, Iraq and Syria), so if the West can maintain its hold on Egypt, it will have finally secured an unbroken line of dominance from the Atlantic to the borders of Iran and central Asia. This is critical as a resource hungry China turns Westward in search of supply lines that bypass the Indian Ocean and the easily blockaded Straits of Malacca.
For the Egyptian security service, the so-called Deep State, the desire to return to normalcy are more local and more immediate. Even discounting the direct financial aid it receives from the United States, the security services run or have a hand in the most profitable businesses in Egypt. Business craves stability and an ability to forecast and plan. Even with a popular mandate, the Brotherhood were an unknown quantity that scared off investors and, being the party of government, they possessed the power use of taxes and regulation as political leverage.
Our Regional Allies Benefit
The popular toppling of Morsi and the subsequent violence has had effects beyond Egypt’s borders too. Firstly, it’s been a vindication for Syria’s President Assad and of his fight against the Islamists rampaging across the north of the country. Just as the Brotherhood failed to gain resonance in Egypt’s cosmopolitan cites, so the religious hardliners in Syria soon saw their popularity plummet when they left the conservative rural areas and headed to the cities. The imposition of a caliphate in Northern Syria has not only infuriated the indigenous Kurds, it came just as Morsi appointed a known extremist to the Governorate of Luxor. The linkage is simplistic and unfair, but it has been made and taken route across the Arab world.
The strife in Egypt’s cities has also strengthened the hand of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Their public support for General Sisi and the new administration is welcome news to Cairo, especially as European and American media outlets ghoulishly replay images of protestors fleeing security forces. The compulsion to support Egypt’s Generals is two fold: Firstly, the monarchies of Arabia have not been immune to the disruption of the Arab Spring. A return to business as normal is more than a financial imperative; it is putting an existential threat back in its box. Secondly, Saudi Arabia revels in its self proclaimed role as the spiritual leader of the Sunni Muslim world. Had the Brotherhood become established in Egypt, by far the most populous Middle Eastern country, that mantle would have been lost.
Never over estimate the importance of vanity and symbolism in geopolitical calculations.
Many in Britain are impatient for democracy’s global triumph, and will back any election anywhere, regardless of the circumstances. But holding an election does not make you a democracy any more than standing in a stable makes you a horse. As mentioned above, the civil institutions required for democracy to become established are painfully lacking in the region.
I have no doubt that democracy will triumph; the spluttering yet still majestic trajectory of humanity demands it. But it won’t be in Egypt, and it won’t be today.
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