Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Egypt Matters - An Historical perspective.

We - and by we I mean the Western world and most especially the USA - have a nasty habit of forgetting some of the past history that makes us uncomfortable. This is especially true when it comes to the Middle East. The current situation in Egypt can trace its roots back to just after WWII. When Egypt became a state separate from Sudan and the monarchy was overthrown.

The second president of Egypt was Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein. This Wikipedia entry on him is well worth reading as he was the head of Egypt up until his death in 1970. This is what makes Egypt so important because he was not only the head of Egypt for so long, but was also the main mover and shaker in the Arab world for this time - from 1956 - 1970. His Vice President was Anwar Sadat who became president after Nasser's death. But Sadat was not wholly loved by the Egyptian people due to his friendliness with the west, the elimination of a lot of Nasser's social policies and most of all the peace treaty with Israel. 

The current political party in Egypt, the NDP, is simply the continuation of the original party established by Nasser but under a different name. Basically made up of military and ex-military men.  Nasser himself was very anti-imperialistic and fought hard against western hegemony.  Not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world forming the United Arab Republic (UAR) and seeing the formation of Israel as another attempt at this hegemony. He was also instrumental in nationalizing the Suez Canal as well as a number of Egyptian industries. He was friendly with and accepted help from the Soviet Union though also suspicious of their intentions as well.

Our rewriting of history include the 6 day war with Israel which Israel began.
In early 1967, Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin sent Nasser a warning through Sadat, who was visiting Moscow, that Israel was about to carry out a large-scale assault against Syria. More warnings followed in the next few months, and King Hussein, aware of the intelligence situation, cautioned Nasser in April not to be dragged into a war. That same month, pressure on him to act by Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the PLO, as well as the general Arab populace, mounted after an aerial battle between Syria and Israel resulted in the downing of six Syrian planes. Convinced that Israel was determined to attack Syria, he asked UN Secretary-General U Thant to withdraw UNEF forces from Sinai. On 23 May, Egyptian troops moved into Sharm el-Sheikh and Nasser ordered the Straits of Tiran closed to Israeli shipping. After the blockade, he gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 29 May saying, "the issue was not UNEF or closing the Strait of Tiran; the issue is the rights of the Palestinian people."[108] This was the same message delivered a week earlier during a visit to an air base in the Sinai. The speeches signaled that Nasser believed war was inevitable.[108]
So when I hear how Egypt has been our friend and ally for so long, I am aghast. Since this is at best an exaggeration.   The one thing that I can see being a big concern for the US is not some Islamic government in Egypt, but the rise of a person of Nasser's power and influence with the rest of the Arab world. 

The protests in Egypt are in my opinion long overdue.  The subtle and not-so-subtle imperialist actions of the US are now being challenged from the ground up. This has got to be causing some people to piss in the pants big time.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Here is an interesting graph for you:

Egypt has more than twice the population of Algeria, the next most populous Arab nation.

Traditionally, Egypt has also been one of the prime social movers of the Arab world.

This can go different ways. Egypt could lead a movement to democratization, or it could devolve into chaos.

There is no question that Mubarak needs to go. Thirty years of despotism is enough for anyone. The Obama administration had sent a clear message days ago, with their "orderly transition" comment by Secretary of State Clinton. And in the manner of despots, Mubarak ignored it.

No matter - his days are numbered.

The best thing we can do is stay away. We're not much liked on the Arab street. Our involvement might drive people away from a "reasonable" successor and toward extremism.

My own take is the best possible outcome is a quieter, stable, somewhat inward-looking Egypt, perhaps led by Muhammad el-Baradei. The movement seems to be coalescing around him as much as anyone, and though he's spent much of the last several decades in self-imposed exile, he has global stature and could well be the face of the stable Egypt we hope for.

I'd also hope we can calm the alarmists relative to the Muslim Brotherhood. Their record over the same time as el-Baradei's exile is one of surprising moderation. Juan Cole has more:

A pullquote:

"Some are even conflating the peaceful Brotherhood with radical groups such as al-Qaeda. I showed in my recent book, Engaging the Muslim World, that the Muslim Brotherhood has since the 1970s opposed the radical movements."

Read the whole piece. Cole knows far more about the Middle East than most of the rest of us put together.

Let's hope things resolve peacefully, though I won't be placing too much of a bet on it. And let's hope a burst of common sense illuminates Mubarak some time soon.