This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
The Mubarak (re)turn continues apace when yesterday Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged billions in aid to the new (old) Egypt. The photo-op is priceless. Everyone seated so properly, at the right intervals, without a military uniform in sight.
The donors’ largesse is strategic – like the land swap deal on Israel by the Arab League some months ago. What Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates want is a Middle East dominated by themselves and their allies.
It’s a war until the end these days in the Middle East. The Arab Spring set off populist movements and alarm bells among the elite. Consider Egypt’s military and its allies – including the United States and Israel – as push back on the Arab Spring. For all practical purposes, consider it done.
Doesn’t the new Middle East look an awful lot like the old one?
Egypt, the great leader among Arab countries, has been reduced in status. It has become a regional and international aid beggar. Now dependent on aid from oil rich Arab countries, Egypt’s military also has to show its strength and stability to secure a multi-billion dollar loan from the IMF.
Egypt’s aid status will weigh heavily on the country for years to come. This will be true even as the military gives way to civilian rule -if that division means anything in Egypt. This is the saddest part of Morsi’s ousting. The most significant fault line in Egyptian political life – military/civilian governance – has once again been decided.
The New York Times adds an interesting twist to this unfolding drama. Egypt has become an arena for the influence of Arab rivals. Warring parties in Syria and other parts of the Middle East region are lining up in Egypt with handouts for their own benefit. At the moment, Egypt benefits from this attempt to influence the future of the Middle East. In the long run Egypt is being reduced to a bit player in a drama that they have little influence over.
Egypt’s influence-peddlers raise the question as to whether the wars in Islam, presumably over the Sunni/Shia divide, are likely to dominate the Middle East for the foreseeable future as the Catholic/Protestant wars dominated Europe in previous centuries. There is lots of room for debate over whether economic and political motives use religion as a disguise for the pursuit of power. Whatever the politics, sociology and economics of the matter and no matter our politically correct sensibilities, however, these religious divisions are mindless. They ought to be condemned outright. When they are employed for power, the result is regressive, with much suffering and bloodshed to account for.
Yet this (re)turn to the Mubarak era doesn’t mean all is lost. A major complaint about the Morsi government is that it didn’t know how to govern. The economy was in shambles. The basic functioning of Egyptian society was at risk. Though what Morsi inherited was corrupt and bankrupt, according to some the people he placed in power lacked the ability to manage a modern economy. Of course, there were many with their own agenda and felt threatened when the new guard took power. What Morsi may have lacked the most was the political ability to negotiate the integration of the old and new.
What was crucial to the success of Western Germany after their defeat in World War II? Few of Hitler’s Nazi domestic allies were imprisoned or punished. Most of the bureaucracy, functionaries and corporate management –willing or unwilling collaborators with the Nazis – were left in place. Regardless of ideology or lack thereof, they had the skillset and experience to manage modern enterprises.
Most agree that America’s post-invasion plans in Iraq went awry in large measure because an ideological litmus test was placed on retaining elements of Iraq’s governing party and army. The United States disbanded both and declared them criminal elements. From that moment on resistance from the removed sectors, sectarian strife, foreign influence and alike were the name of the game.
The difficult lesson here is that the old regime always remains within the new and that the people within the old often have malleable values. Most can transition into different ideological systems – if their livelihoods, careers and status remain intact. While this doesn’t say much for the ethical compass of humanity and the ethical possibilities of power, the fact is that people value public order, work, food and housing more than discussions about freedom and dissent. In short, people want a functioning society. Who makes society function is less important.
In the end, Egypt’s military will be judged by the ‘functioning society’ yard stick.
It isn’t coincidental that this is how the Egyptian army will consolidate its future.
That is what Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, Egypt’s magnanimous donors, want as well.