Egypt—What’s Next?

News Abroad

Haider Khan is Professor of International and Development Economics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Events in Egypt have unsettled the media pundits and Western academic advisers alike.  After all, how can the recipient of the largest amount of U.S. foreign aid in the Arab world and a close U.S. ally be in such dire political trouble from within?

As a CNN pundit put it recently,"among Arab nations Egypt enjoys a near-unparalleled relationship with Washington." 

But now Washington is worried.

Only last Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated confidently that the United States supported the "the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people."  At the same time, she added that the U.S.  was confident that the "the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

But the very next day, Secretary of State Clinton said, "We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."  While Clinton urged the Egyptian government to keep the channels of peaceful protests open, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated: "Egypt is a strong ally."

However, the roots of trouble in Egypt run deep.  The recent example of Tunisia may have given the protesters an immediate impetus, but the discontent has been simmering for a long time.

During my most recent visit to the country as an international adviser to a Cairo-based UN project on Arab Trade and Human Development, I noticed signs of unease among top academics and government officials in spite of the relatively high rate of growth and talks of export diversification during the last few years.  Inequality and poverty have both been rising.  Urban poverty was and remains particularly severe.  Even by the official measure, it is over 20 percent.  Official unemployment rate hovers around 10 per cent but the actual rate is much higher.  My long conversations with students, workers and peasants convinced me that it was only brutal repression by the Egyptian state that was keeping a lid on widespread discontent throughout the Egyptian society.

It was also clear to me as a professional economist who has studied the development debacles in many parts of the world including the Arab world, that the causes of unease—even if not consciously grasped in all their historical specificities by the highly trained experts or the plain people I talked with—had long trajectories.

They certainly go back at least to the policy failures of the Egyptian President Mubarak who has now been in power since 1981.  But perhaps the political vacuum of non-military alternatives arising from the politics in civil society started with the Nasserites, as independent Egyptian scholars such as Samir Amin have observed.  Under President Hosni Mubarak the repression intensified to include not only the secular democrats, socialists, and communists but also the Islamists.

For the moment, to paraphrase Nietzsche, out of the chaos, there is at least one faint sign of a dancing star.  It is Mohammed ElBaradei who headed the IAEA after a successful career as an Egyptian diplomat.  After his highly competent handling of several crises including the one in Iraq, ElBaradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2005.

However, ElBaradei has yet to form a political party and even his supporters are unsure as to how familiar he is with the complexities of Egypt’s problems.  As for his own plans, when he was asked recently whether he would run for president, ElBaradei said: "Whether I run or not, that is totally irrelevant.  And I made it very clear; I will not run under the present conditions, when the deck is stacked completely."

"The priority for me is to—is to shift Egypt into a democracy, is to catch up with the twenty-first century, to get Egypt to be a modern and moderate society and respecting human rights, respecting the basic freedoms of the people."

All these are goals that deserve the support of the international community.  Will Egypt be able to make a peaceful transition to a democratic society with equality and justice for all before things fall apart?

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Arnold Shcherban - 2/1/2011

Israeli President, Others Slam Obama for ‘Betrayal’ of Mubarak.
Israeli Reticence to Comment on Egypt Revolt Gives Way to Burst of Outrage.
by Jason Ditz, January 31, 2011

After spending last week and much of this weekend comparatively silent about the uprisings in neighboring Egypt, Israeli officials and pundits are suddenly sounding off on the growing rebellion and lashing out at President Obama for his somewhat incomplete backing of Mubarak.

Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Mubarak, insisting the Israeli government had “great respect” for the aging dictator, while he and others angrily chided President Obama for his modest calls for political reform in Egypt, accusing him of “betraying” Mubarak.

The comments are likely to be viewed quite negatively amongst protesters, who were already more than a little irked at US officials saying they wouldn’t support the complete ouster of Mubarak but only some minor reforms and citing Israel as the excuse.

Indeed, despite the Obama Administration’s insistence that they aren’t “taking sides” most are viewing them as propping up the Mubarak government, and not the other way around, a position strongly indicated by the $1.5 billion the US sends him annually.

But now, in the wake of a bloody crackdown on protesters, Israeli officials the world over are demanding that the US and others “curb” their criticism of Mubarak, and telling their ambassadors to warn the world that Israel not only supports Mubarak’s regime unquestioningly, but believes that allowing free elections in the nation could have “very serious implications” on other dictators in the region.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/31/2011

kovachevs' crazy demagogery is really cracking me up: "Obama would betray Egyptian main street, etc."
What US or Israeli President or government, for that matter, has been ever on the side of its own nation's "main street", not mentioning foreign one? Oh my, oh my!
What a site! Every lunatic has an "opinion"...

Arnold Shcherban - 1/31/2011

Not all Jews, but Zionist zealots (aka-Kovachev) that apologize and even praise any and every illegal, violent action taken by Israeli governments.

Peter Kovachev - 1/31/2011

"I pray our pathetic excuse for a President finds some backbone, not to mention some brains."

That's praying for a suprnatural miracle, Mr McCombs. My prediction is that your C-in-C will not find what he is not even aware is missing, much less looking for, but that he'll hug El Baradei, the slippery Muslim Brotherhood groupie and Iran's doormat, who will then politely step aside for the first Islamist strongman. In one stroke, Obama will betray both an old ally and the Egyptian street and spend the rest of his life boasting about how his "smart diplomacy" led to a "democratic revolution" which, alas, brought an Islamist dictatorship. And speaking of Jimmy, he'll be there to certify the "elections."

Fahrettin Tahir - 1/31/2011

Nasser was an important member of the non aligned movement, founded by former European colonies. This movement was angry with colonialism, which at that point was still going strong.

Let us remember the Algerian war of independence. The French insisted that Algeria was France proper and murdered 1 million Algerians out of 8 to make their point. France was a Nato country supported by the US.

This led to an anti western orientation of the block free movement.

Israel was seen by them as a Western agent used to discipline her Arab neighbors.

The consequence were the fronts discussed here.

Peter Kovachev - 1/31/2011

Poor Arnie. Our local "exhibit A" of those desperately seeking a "palestinian-centric" explanation to every dysfunction in the Muslim world. Like crack addicts vacuuming up the living room rug with their bleeding nostrils, they'll be claiming every piece of lint and crud as evidence that, somehow, it's the Jews' fault and that everything will be well again with them gone.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/30/2011

<The US had no alliance with Israel. Hence, your original comment, which was premised on the existence of that alliance, could not be possibly be true.>
Wrong NF! You, deliberately or not, but misinterpret the premise my original comment was based on, despite my elaboration on it in my last comment!
The formal alliance wasn't there, but the recognition of the high value of Israel as the West-oriented, anti-Arab, aggressive force
in one of the most strategically important regions of the world and the increasing pro-Israeli US-based lobby was there.
<One has to wonder why the US would tick off Egypt, driving them towards the USSR, for a non-ally.>
Are you serious or just monkey me?
That's was exactly the puzzle I offered and resolved!?
I repeat again for suffering ADD - because the US was unable at the time to bribe Nasser's government into peace with Israel, which later it managed to accomplish with Sadat's government and continue doing it on even bigger scale with Mubarak's regime.

N. Friedman - 1/30/2011


My point was rather simple and irrefutable. The US had no alliance with Israel. Hence, your original comment, which was premised on the existence of that alliance, could not be possibly be true.

You now admit that the US and Israel had no alliance. You now claim, instead, that the US wanted someday to have an alliance with Israel. The known facts show that to be another inaccurate statement.

US interest in becoming Israel's ally began after Israel demonstrated its military prowess in 1967. Israel's victory, stunning in both the amount of land captured and the speed of the capture, stunned the world and sent a message to the US that Israel was an important party in the region, one that could no longer be ignored.

In any event, on your theory, the only reason that, in the days that the US was not Israel's ally, it did not provide aid to Egypt is still Israel. One has to wonder why the US would tick off Egypt, driving them towards the USSR, for a non-ally. If you have documentary evidence for your proposition, I would love to see it. Otherwise, I shall take your comment as nonsense.

Fahrettin Tahir - 1/30/2011


That is correct.

Unfortunately Bush + Co were no better.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/30/2011

Let me analyze your objections one by one (though I know, as it always happened before, we are not going to agree on anything concerning Israel, thanks to your absolutist apologetic stance on everything concerning that country.)
<Israel was not an ally of the US during Nassar's time. The two countries were generally friendly but there was no alliance.>
This is true: formally it wasn't, but this does not mean that the US could not view Israel as its potential ally in countering Arab nationalism and its possible slide to socialism. Neither it means that the US-Egypt relations were friendly at the time...
<Nassar, moreover, was a socialist and he had come to power in a coup. He was a perfect candidate for the dictators who ran the USSR.>
Nasser, by the opinion of the great majority of historians around the world was first and foremost an Arab nationalist, not socialist (in the Soviet/Marxist/original definition of the term), as he characterized by the great majority of historians and political pundits. It is true that at the dawn of his life and presidency under the expanding economic and military alliance with and influence of the Soviet Union he decided that the best path for Egyptian society to follow was building national kind of socialism.
But before, after, and even during that short period of his presidency, he was jailing true socialists and communists and severely diminished the influence of the latter (and they enjoyed significant role in Egypt after the success of national revolution) in the social and political life of Egypt, the influence that later was replaced by the popularity of moderate and radical religious groups.
Finally it led to the split
with the USSR, which early awarded Nasser with the Hero of the Soviet Union title.
On the other hand, the US, as early as in 1957 adopted adopted the Eisenhower Doctrine, pledging to protect Middle Eastern countries from Communism and its "agents." Although Nasser was hardly a supporter of Communism (on the contrary he even told Syrian government to get rid of communists that once were big in Syria), his promotion of Arab nationalism threatened surrounding pro-Western states, including Israel. Eisenhower attempted to isolate and reduce him by considering support of his ally King Saud as a counterweight.
Thus, the puzzle I resolved in my original post, remains a puzzle after your arguments: why the US governments did not even tried hard to win Nasser's favors, by using his dislike of socialists and communists in the heat of the "titanic struggle" with international communism, letting him reorient such a very important country (in the region) as Egypt
towards their sworn enemy - Soviet Union?

Elliott Aron Green - 1/30/2011

Fahrettin is saying that Erdogan's AKP govt is using fake documents to persecute and prosecute its political opposition, army officers who don't like the AKP, etc. Obama and the usual gang of ignorant pundits in the press don't seem to notice what goes on in Turkey. In fact, the Woodrow Wilson Center -run by Obama's mentor, Lee Hamilton-- gave a monetary prize last summer to Erdogan's foreign minister, Davutoglu. The Wilson Center is 1/3 funded by the US Govt.

As for Barada`i, he is a destructive person. While at the atomic energy agency, he protected the Iranian Nuclear Bomb project from scrutiny as much as he could. Hence, he undermined world security. His Nobel prize is no recommendation as far as I am concerned. The prize was devalued long ago. He is also hostile to Israel.

Elliott Aron Green - 1/30/2011

Arnold errs in another way, NF. He seems unaware that Nasser's coup d'etat in 1952 was aided by the USA and UK. Nasser worked closely with American officials, such as Kim Roosevelt, till his death and was much favored by the USA, favored over Israel in fact.

Also, Arnold and Khan err by claiming that Egypt was the largest Arab recipient of US foreign aid. That distinction goes to Saudi Arabia which received indirect or disguised foreign aid. The royalties paid by ARAMCO for saudi oil were treated by the US Treasury as taxes, as "oil income taxes" and ARAMCO could deduct them dollar for dollar from its corporate income tax through the Foreign Tax Credit. Therefore, it could pay more for oil to the saudis without the money coming out of its own pocket. Hence the kingdom was the largest single recipient of US foreign aid among the Arabs and possibly in general. But the aid was disguised as a tax credit to ARAMCO. See John Blair's The Control of Oil.

Fahrettin Tahir - 1/30/2011

The US can not prevent an Egyptian revolution any more than Britain could habe prevented the French revolution.

At this moment they seem to be trying to replace Mr Mubarak with Mr Baradei. Might work or not.

The issue I was addressing is that US intervention goes far beyond what would be legitimate interests. They are trying to reengineer the entire Middle East because they can no longer control the structures engineered after WW 1.

Iraq had been broken up, the elite assasinated to decapitate the country. A discussion in going on about breaking up Afghanistan. Sudan and Turkey are short before being broken up. Iran and Pakistan are strong candidates.

Since Turkey and Pakistan are allies and Sudan no enemy this policy has nothing to do with defending legitimate interests.

It is also creating new enemies. Let us remember that Sri Lanka avoided being broken up by cooperating with China.

In Turkey opponenets of the Islamists are in jail. Some of the evidence has been manufactured by the police. One lieutenant has Hizbullah telephone numbers recorded on his mobile phone, now proven in court, by the police. Several hundred high ranking officers are on trial according to documents which name instititions which did not exist under that name at the point they are dated. Goverment hacks write in their newspapers that this is their friend tha USA prosecuting people who wanted to collaborate with China.

That is what is really going on.

Hal D McCombs - 1/30/2011

America has a right to protect its' own interests. And an obligation to help its' friends.

With any crisis involving Israel, it's usually pretty clear what we need to do. In this Egyptian situation, it's not so transparent. The similarities to the Iranian revolution are many, and we don't need another 'Carter moment' this time.

Allowing another 'mullahcracy' in the region would be a disaster, both for the U.S. and for the Egyptian people. I pray our pathetic excuse for a President finds some backbone, not to mention some brains.

Fahrettin Tahir - 1/30/2011

Israel is a matter for US concern, as is oil as well as other issues and in sum the US is trying to determined everything in all countries of the Islamic world.

In doing so they cause enormous damage, which makes them more hated by the day, necessitaing even more intrusive policies.

Such policies are not working.

N. Friedman - 1/30/2011


You write: "One reason only - Israel."

Israel was not an ally of the US during Nassar's time. The two countries were generally friendly but there was no alliance. Recall, the US admonished Israel in 1956 and, in any event, Israel's source of armaments at the time was France.

Hence, your "one reason" theory cannot possibly be true.

Nassar, moreover, was a socialist and he had come to power in a coup. He was a perfect candidate for the dictators who ran the USSR.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/29/2011

Nasser was jailing primarily leftists - socialists and communists, Mubarak added to the latter ones Muslim radicals.
Mubarak in the judgment of Egyptian and international majority is even worse dictator than Nasser was.
So why the US governments in the Cold War era (when they supported any murderous dictator who persecuted leftists and terrorized general population of the pertaining country) did not support (they vilified him, instead) Nasser, while living in much safer for the US national security situation in the post-Soviet era and up to now, not only supported Mubarak's regime, but made it the greatest recipient of American economic and military aid among all Arab nations?!
One reason only - Israel.
I think to the folks who are more or less familiar with modern Middle-East history the explanations for the above-mentioned reason are redundant.
This one more illumination of the great impact of Israeli lobby on US foreign policy.