February 10, 2011
Egyptian Regime: Not Anyone's Puppet
One idea that is slowly fading from all sides in the Egypt drama -- for the most part -- is the simplistic notion or assertion that the Egyptian regime has been some sort of puppet for the USA. It is quite true that the US has great leverage – money, “good offices”, and weaponry supplies do talk – but the Mubarak government and its actions have their own genesis, as does the revolt. The regime will fall or endure as what it is: an Egyptian phenomenon. As to the bilateral relationship with the USA, America has been Egypt's client in the business sense of the term, not the other way around.
The Mubarak regime is – despite the moanings and protests of Arab nationalists and others, especially over the Camp David Agreement with Israel -- the direct descendant and heir of the the Nasserist one. It still has its own raisons d’etre. Its dysfunctional and dying contract with its citizenry is indigenous and internal in nature and origin, and even its American-oriented Israel-accommodating foreign policy has its own separate and internal dynamic for existing.
The current government is simply the original Nasserist regime minus one of its accidents -- Gamal Abdel Nasser. Or more particularly, Nasser’s personal popularity, hypernationalistic pan-Arabism, populist charisma and acute distaste for financial corruption. Nonetheless, it remains Nasser’s surveillance state with a command economy (less by formal socialism and more by actual cronyism these days), a military core, a leader cult, a secularist passion, a certain genuine central sense of patriotism, and a sincere fear that real democracy will unleash more demons for Egypt than it will contain.
The old term “client state” is misleading. Egypt is not an American client. America is Egypt’s client. The USA is a customer, the largest foreign account for Mubarak & Co. It's strictly a business transaction between separate entities. The tradeoff is more or less explicit: Egypt gets extra money and its military gets toys, and in return Egypt keeps a peace with Israel and cooperates, or at least does not actively oppose, American efforts in the region.
But when Mubarak and crew rankle about American internal political interference, they mean it. They mean it not just as populist propaganda but as something central to their regime’s sense of identity. The tendency of nationalists, Islamists, anti-imperialists and leftists to see in Egypt’s reorientation to an America-centered, Israel-accommodating set of policies a reduction to puppetdom is shallow.
A pro-American foreign policy, and a non-anti-Israeli one, is merely a carrying out of policy options inherent in the original regime’s own home-grown indigenous non-puppety construction. Pro-Americanism is simply business, as is the relative pro-Israelism, brought on by frustrations of past decades. Anti-Americanism and even anti-Israelism were never core to the regime, despite Gamal Abdel Nasser’s fierce adoption of them -- an orientation that evolved from his own ego, the spirit of the times and region, and escalations by Israel and blandishments by the USSR.
The Free Officers who did their coup in 1952 were flexible and diverse. Many, including Nasser, were anticommunist; anti-Israel animus was not central. The US Embassy practically popped champagne when it happened and The Soviet Encyclopedia, if I recall it correctly, denounced it as a USA-fomented coup. The conspirators held varying views on transitioning to democracy, but most tended to agree the country wasn’t ready. The number one villain was Britain whom they wanted out of the Canal Zone. They were at core in their common denominator Egyptian nationalists and modernizers. Arab nationalism only came on slowly, in great part due to historical circumstances and Gamal Abdel Nasser seeing it as a pathway to power and progress.
Nasser’s domination led to a pan-Arabist orientation and ultimately a move towards non-alignment and increasing anti-Americanism as US policy became both Cold War rigid and more and more uncritically pro-Israel, while Israeli policy towards Egypt grew more violent and provocative. That happened despite some half-hearted efforts by Nasser and Israeli Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion, and more promisingly, Sharett to pursue an Israel-Egypt private channel or understandings for serious negotiation. Nasser’s socialist ideals and power-seeking ego led to grand and not wholly successful economic projects like the Aswan Dam, despite some sincere efforts to modernize and to avoid corruption. They also nurtured the police state systems and the tools for state-delivered cronyism.
His unsuccessful pan-Arabist wars with Israel and in Yemen led to huge political and economic failures including the loss of the Sinai with its hydrocarbons, and the loss of Suez Canal revenue. Not to mention military replacement costs and alienation of the Oil States and their financial resources. By the time of his death, Nasser himself and his establishment knew that an activist foreign policy was impoverishing regime and country.
The newer leadership more openly faced the failures of Nasser’s policies. The 1967 defeat by Israel “took”. Saudi-Gulf-funded Fatah claimed the PLO away from Nasserists. Soviet support for Egypt’s military (the regime’s home base), with inferior materiel to Israel's, came with advisers who annoyed the Egyptian regime as old-fashioned colonialists. No Sinai and Suez meant lower income, and the humiliation of their Egyptian nationalism of foreign occupation. In 1971, Sadat offered a peace agreement with Israel if they'd leave Sinai. He threw out Soviet advisors. These steps unappreciated, he launched a “hello are you listening” war in 1973.
On Islamism issues, Nasser and his group, middle classers generally, or ambitious lower classers, had the modernizing nationalist’s dislike of political and traditional religion and were adamant about secularism. (Sadat was the one with the strongest religious ties and gave lip service by adding Sharia to the constitution, but all the while maintaining a secularist active policy.) They strongly feared that allowing popular sentiment to predominate might risk bringing in religion, and allowing open party politics might propel the Muslim Brotherhood forward.
Nasser literally dodged bullets from a Brotherhood assassin, while Sadat failed to dodge an Islamist bullet. Uncontrolled popular politics meant death for themselves and for their sincere ideas of progress. Nasser, no less than Mubarak-Suleiman today or Fox TV or Netanyahu, or King Farouk for that matter, believed that unfettered democracy in Egypt meant backwardness and chaos.
It is the same regime now and with the same focus and nature. Although wealth has become more sacred to the ruling class, it still sees itself as the necessary bulwark of modernization and of Egyptians being guided forward by Egyptians. America has a say and can influence and intrigue, fund and defund, but the regime itself remains a puppet only of Egypt’s homegrown history and vision.
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Good one. Thanks.
Posted by: pantom at February 10, 2011 01:01 PM
Interesting phone survey from Egypt, from WINEP of all places:
Posted by: Tom Scudder at February 10, 2011 05:05 PM