Opinion: The Egypt crisis and the role of the UK

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 works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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  • Clear Thinker 22nd Aug '13 - 1:15pm

    Thanks for a very interesting and challenging article Paul.

    To really achieve “peace, constitutionality and prosperity”, a population surely needs to be engaged in the political process, and be able to proportionately influence it? The population needs to develop processes and institutions and habits that it understands. Wouldn’t our use of financial leverage tend to thwart this objective?

    Do you happen to know what the numbers are? The media seem confused or inaccurate about the sizes of demonstrations. And how is it possible for an army of conscripts to operate in the way this army does? Many of the conscripts will perhaps have origins that tend to make them favour the MB?

    The academic study of politics and collections of human groups has been around for a long time – from Plato and even earlier. Is any guidance on the processes of change available from this source?

  • the uk government doesn’t want to take sides over human rights in Egypt,bahrain,saudi Arabia etc but does want to in Syria,iran etc. And people wonder why the public are cynical about politics

  • Ed Shepherd 23rd Aug '13 - 7:34am

    Conscript armies? I think a a look back at history would show that conscript armies are the most brutal and oppressive type of armies. Conscription has the effect of taking a population’s young people and brutalising them. It removes thousands of young men (and sometimes women) away from civil society and placing them in an environment where violence, prejudice and obedience are the norm. By taking away young people’s opportunity to think for themselves, to become educated and to be a part of civil society, conscription undemines democracy, encourages indifference to the suffering of other people and leads to abuse of human rights. The conscripts in the Egyptian army have no choice except to follow the orders they are given. They would be punished if they disobeyed. Besides, I suspect that the demonstrators are being shot by elite military units and police squads rather than by regular army units.

  • Clear Thinker 23rd Aug '13 - 8:13am

    Do you have any evidence for your view that conscription brutalizes people, Ed? Your comment made me think and search several websites and none mention that, either as an effect of conscription or as a benefit or disadvantage.

    Wkipedia has a long article in which the arguments against conscription come down to sexism, slavery, and economics, and the arguments for include Rousseau’s idea that “it was the right and privilege of every citizen to participate to the defense of the whole society and a mark of moral decline to leave this business to professionals”.

    People do say colloquially, that a spell in the army is just the kind of discipline that today’s youth needs – builds moral fibre, backbone, etc. Guides them to proper life choices. Keeps them away from drugs and crime.

  • Clear Thinker 23rd Aug '13 - 8:39am

    Indeed, I wonder if conscription could be the LibDem’s policy answer to youth unemployment? Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak?

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Aug '13 - 1:13pm

    As an outsider looking in, I see 3 factions that despise each other and each is convinced that they represent the majority of people in Egypt, and no process of democracy will convince them otherwise.
    As a liberal I would like to believe that the liberal secularists will win out eventually. After all, the reason they did not win in the previous election was because unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, they were disperate and disorganised. However it is also true that they tend to be well educated, speak English and western reporters like to interview them. Maybe this was the reason they confidently predicted that the Muslim Botherhood would not win the last election?
    The problems with population growth in particular makes me think that any democratic government will struggle and unless the military is cut down to size they will be the ones who will take the power in the end.

  • What I found interesting in Paul Reynolds’ article was “10-year path to peace, constitutionality and prosperity”. When we look back at our history it could be said that from 1660 to 1928 our democracy developed. In the eighteenth century our legal system developed many of the forms it still has today.

    I know very little about Egypt but I think a liberal legal system must be the place to start building a democracy and I wonder how far this can be done if the majority of those living in the country want a legal system based on Islamic law. There also has to be a recognition of the rights of minorities and when we look back at our history these rights were developed over time.

    I also wonder about the system of governorates in Egypt. If there is government below this level can it be made democratic? Should the governors being elected before there are national elections?

    As the Muslim Brotherhood gains support by providing welfare should any 10-year long move towards a democratic state including ensuring they do not have a monopoly in this area?

    It appears that Mubarak and the military rule has failed the people in not developing those things needed for a liberal democracy. Of course it might be that the British failed before this.

  • Well since someone asked: My view that conscription brutalises society comes from looking at history: examples include Vietnam (drafted soldiers involved in a war of horrendous atrocities that went effectively unpunished by the US government), Nazism (without invoking Godwin’s law in this context), the Soviet Union (and modern Russia for that matter), in the modern Middle East: Turkey, Israel and numerous other countries and my experience of knowing ex-service people plus the experience of military basic training. People who think that military service will keep young people away from crime and drugs have not encountered some of the servicemen/women that I have met. Consider: would we have had the wonderful music of The Beatles, The Kinks or The Rolling Stones if their members had spent three years being hit and shouted at by RSMs? Would we have ever seen the peace movement of the sixties or the eco moement of the nineties if the young people of the time had been locked up in a military brig for growing long hair or insubordination? We should envisage a better future for our young people than simply being indoctrinated to obey without question the orders of a superior and never to dare question those in authority no matter what misgivings you have about the cause that you are fighting for. I recently investigated the incidence of desertion in British wars of the past for a book I am writing. Desertion and thoughts of desertion were widespread even amongst the “greatest generation” of World War Two. My uncle was in the army. A sensitive lad in his regiment hated army life so much that he killed himself with his rifle. That alone is enough reason for me to despise the idea of enforced military service.

  • Clear Thinker 23rd Aug '13 - 10:44pm

    Thanks, Ed. Maybe I’ll look out for your book when it gets published.

    I do like definitions, though. To brutal-IZE surely means to make more brutal, does it not? Or to cause someone to become brutal? None of your examples really seem to show that, but perhaps there will be more details in your book.

    There are plenty of people who are already brutalized by society before they ever get to the age of conscription, and the discipline and comradeship might feasibly begin to resolve this a bit. We did have Elvis, who was a conscript, and Jimi Hendrix, to name but two.

    Interestingly, Liberals have something of a war-like history. H.Asquith, a Liberal prime minister, declared war on Germany in 1914. Millions lost their lives as a result. Life expectancy in the trenches was something like a week, and the military police would shoot you if you refused to go over the top and fight when the order came.

    Thanks again for your interesting response. Though we are now off topic and I am wondering what will happen as a result!

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