For the benefit of Lib Dem members who read LDV I thought it useful to offer up a perspective on the current crisis as a contribution to understanding on the topic – especially important from a Coalition perspective given the UK Foreign Secretary’s recent highly controversial pronouncements.
Historically the military has had a major role in Egyptian society and its age-old pursuit of autonomy & independence – from the centuries of Mamluks to the post-independence military governments, and President Mubarak’s Western-backed thirty-year de facto military rule. The state, whilst strong on ‘security’, is generally incompetent and corrupt, such that it is not too difficult to operate under its radar. Democratic traditions and supporting institutions are fatally weak.
Whilst 1990s reforms did stimulate investment, in general economic management has been catastrophic – sometimes bizarrely so. Per capita GDP is still below £2000 per year, a figure which masks the extreme poverty (especially in the South) given that Egypt is one of the most unequal countries in the whole region. The economy is still dominated by military-run conglomerates (partially fed by $1bn + annual subsidies from the US), state/crony monopolies and wealthy landowners, which mean that the benefits of growth accrue to a select few.
Corrupt and sclerotic administration has meant dilapidated public services, terrible infrastructure and labyrinthine bureaucracy. Most of Egypt has remained unchanged for five decades, apart from the tens of thousands of strange unfinished windowless apartments in peri-urban Cairo that house ‘economic refugees’ from the countryside.
Several factors combined to topple Mubarak. First the population bulge. Vocal middle class younger people often with foreign connections, became disdainful of President Mubarak. Second, the economy had faltered in 2009. No longer an oil exporter, but with a greedy elite to keep happy, Egypt borrowed more and relied more on aid. With debt at 80% of GDP and annual deficits of 10% to 8%, investors started to get nervous. Growth failed to keep pace with population growth and incomes fell. Then as Mubarak’s final term came to an end, he made it clear his son would be the next president, dashing all hope of reform
In Egypt as in much of the Mid East, politics is a three-way fight. State incompetence over the decades, born of a Western-backed dictator, saw the expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood – based on welfare services to the largely illiterate poor masses. The government had no choice but to let them be. Instead the generals focused on the young pro-democracy modernisers in a series of appalling crackdowns. The backlash was the violent uprising in Jan 2011, and elections.
The problem which the modernisers and foreign governments all knew about, was that elections would bring to power the ill-prepared and often intolerant Brotherhood (‘the beards’ as they called them), even though it was the young modernisers who toppled Mubarak. Almost certainly, from early on, the generals planned to set up the Brotherhood to fail – eg barring any ‘more worldly’ leader from standing, blocking reforms, and talking up the Islamic terrorist angle, (and links with Hamas), to the West. It was a ‘back soon’ sign on the door.
So now the guys in uniform are back to their old ways – brutality, military governors in provinces, emergency laws, and ‘more aid please’ to feather nests and keep the economy afloat. But it is all dangerously politically and economically unsustainable.
The UK government can decide to ‘not take sides’, continue our lucrative arms trade & aid, and merely observe the carnage over the next decade, with prospects of a wider war. Alternatively we can work with our EU partners and the US State Dept to apply the financial leverage we have – to ensure a negotiated 10-year path to peace, constitutionality and prosperity. That would be in the best long term interests of the UK as well as the Egyptian people. One should not forget that a third of Europe’s maritime oil passes through the Suez Canal and the UK is just coming out of recession.
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.