The American tendency is not only ahistorical, but antihistorical. After all, our forebears came to escape their European, Latin American and Asian — even African — histories. Nothing could be further from the American experience than Egypt’s multimillennial suffocating cultural “overburden.” To further alienate Americans from context, the world has moved to instantaneous electronic transmissions. Images and tweets replace studies and serious journalism — and contemplation.
That’s why it might be well to lean back and view unpredictable events with more dispassion — and, yes, common sense. [I like the Oxford English Dictionary’s No. 2 definition: “xxx the plain wisdom which is everyone's inheritance xxx”.]
America’s role and national interest:
Egypt’s burgeoning 80 million people has been for centuries the center of Sunni Islam; Cairo, heart of the larger Arab world with its vast petroleum resources [only gas in Egypt]. With feeble economic, cultural and physical infrastructure, the Arab and Persian petrosheikhs now levy a “tax” on the world economy [as former Sec. of Treasury William Simon rationalized.] Therefore, Egypt’s stability inherently demands Washington’s highest priority.
As Biggest Boy on the Block, the U.S. is both envied and courted, not least by Egypt. Washington struck a bargain with its annual $2 billion aid package — a bribe to keep Egypt’s military on the straight and narrow. Cairo was to modernize, bolster regional moderates, help secure the world oil supply and prevent attacks on Israel. Not least, it guarded Suez Canal passage for 80 percent of world commercial traffic.
Those dollars and weapons have undoubtedly helped; President Hosni Mubarak, whatever else, has cooperated to stem worldwide Islamic terrorism. But no person, no nation, likes dole, certainly not Egypt with its fabled history. So “anti-Americanism” is endemic.
But current idiocies include polling — which, of course, has been so accurate in the U.S.! Does that little lady with a clipboard asking questions in an authoritarian society with a secret police wear a burka? Are “Westernized” elites or illiterate subsistence farmers measured?
Poverty, insecurity and lifestyle:
Most Egyptians have no safety net beyond extended family, living with greater insecurity than Americans have known since the Civil War. With population doubling during Mubarak’s 30-year rule, a third now under 14, unemployment is staggering. [That’s why early demonstrators were mostly adolescents.] Egypt would have to generate 450,000 new jobs annually just to keep its current unemployment level.
Agriculture — less than 3 percent of land along the Nile is arable — desperately needs modernization. Even with the world’s best cotton, progress toward agroindustry as elsewhere in “the third world” has been slow. But farming employs one-third the workforce, including subsistence on three million holdings under five acres. Egypt, in Caesar’s time Rome’s granary, by 1980 was importing about three-fourths of its staple, wheat.
Mubarak has unwound nationalized industry slowly — often rewarding his fellow military. It was “collectivized” in the 1950s by army dictator Abdul Gamal Nasser, seduced by Moscow planners. Perhaps even more damaging, Nasser expelled ethnic communities — Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Italians — who for centuries had managed Egypt’s economy. [Still, today, Copts, Egypt’s indigenous Christian minority — perhaps as much as 15 percent — are disproportionately “wealthier,” an always threatening political timebomb.]
The politics of desperation:
Government to government and UN aid has been irrelevant. Faced with staggering problems, the remnants of Egypt’s traditional elite and its new military recruits have ruled despotically. Still, Egypt’s purchasing power ranks around 25th in the world. And the Mubarak regime has managed growth of about 5 percent annually. Violence has already torpedoed that; for example, frightening off 13 million annual tourists bringing in $12 billion, supporting 10 million workers.
The totalitarian temptation:
Egypt has been the fount of modern Islamic fundamentalist violence. Its Moslem Brotherhood, coalescing in the 1920s, advocates returning to medieval church-state organization based on a primitive Islam. Plotters from a Brotherhood offspring assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, an officer of peasant origin who broke off Nasser’s Soviet alliance, allied himself with Washington and made peace with Israel. Mubarak has walked in his footsteps, however hesitantly. No one is certain — because of off and on suppression — of Brotherhood strength. But it is the only significant political organization beyond Mubarak’s government hangerson — and the military. And although splintered — and without charismatic leadership of revolutionary Iran — its “magic formula,” “submission” to the Koran, to solve all social and economic problems, is as attractive as Communism and Fascism were to so many in the 1930s.
Sol W. Sanders, (firstname.lastname@example.org), writes the 'Follow the Money' column for The Washington Times . He is also a contributing editor for WorldTribune.com and EAST-ASIA-INTEL.com. An Asian specialist, Mr. Sanders is a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. >