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Once again, the West’s contradictory Progressive values render clear thinking impossible, this time over recent upheaval in Egypt.

We just love Democracy, but radical Islamists won free and fair and we don’t like them. Military dictatorships, such as who arrested President Morsi and his cabinet, don’t sound like our kind either. Meanwhile millions march in protest all over Egypt, and Americans would hardly let that happen at home under the Patriot Act. Happily, the answers are simple for real conservatives unencumbered with ideology. First off, the problems have deep roots in American meddling.

After centuries of sometimes brutal colonial occupation by the French, British and Ottoman Turks, the 1950s Baathist movement set the tone for many Middle Eastern governments and not only Egypt; the Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq are two more. It stressed Big Government nationalism, often with European fascist overtones but also inspired by harsh secular reforms in 1920s Turkey. The Egyptian version allied with the USSR until the 1979 Peace Accords with the US and Israel; thereafter America spent more than $50 billion on military and civilian aid to Egypt, virtually all under their recently deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak. All that US military training and equipment didn’t go to waste: he used it to oppress his middle classes.

Egypt’s radical Islamists (including the recently deposed Muslim Brotherhood) were of little concern being largely beyond Mubarak’s grasp, and they were useful bogeymen with which to scare America and Israel while justifying his despotism. The real threat was the emerging middle class; the schoolteachers and dentists and shopkeepers who wanted democracy. They were bribed with creature comforts and intimidated by suppressing reformist politics. Some of their children were repulsed and became terrorists, since they could neither rely on peaceful change nor trust ‘pro-democracy’ foreign allies who were against democracy for Egypt.

When Mubarak fell, the middle classes had no political organisation with which to compete against the well-organised Islamists, so they lost to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which preached a new moderation which was not a lie, or not an intentional one. Then several things happened, each fairly invisible from afar.

First, perhaps unintentionally, Morsi reverted to type. Even had he thought himself to be a paragon of reasonableness, his political DNA is autocratic. Unlike heterodox Islam or ordinary Muslims, orthodox Islam is quite incompatible with democracy and any honest and educated Muslim will admit it.

Even in its many variants orthodox Islam (a) conforms to God’s wishes, not Man’s; and (b) micromanages life down to marital sexual relations, taxes, and a vast litany of other minutia chiefly revealed or devised 1,000-1,400 years ago. Among the Sunni majority most of it is beyond reinterpretation. Unlike Christ or Buddha, who each avoided political prescription to focus on redemption/enlightenment, Muslim orthodoxy allows no separation between the realms of Caesar and the divine. Many Muslim nations have and do ignore Islamic strictures on banking and interest payments, for example, but these are quietly acknowledged hypocrisies justified as modern necessity.

So autocracy is in the DNA of orthodox Muslims (i.e, Islamists, Salafis, Wahabis, etc), Morsi declared himself to be above the law and he was in no way acting out of character. Indeed, he surely believes in paternalist governance as the only path to decency; necessary to avoid populism, degeneracy and mob-rule. Millions protest in disagreement and here another pair of secrets is at work; pride and technology.

For a millennium, Egyptian Muslims have been cultural heroes across the Arab world. Cairo’s Sunni theological school, Al Azhar, is two centuries older than any Western university and is by Muslim reputation Oxbridge, Harvard and Yale combined. From fine art to literature and cinema, every Arab looks to Cairo and the Cairenes take vast pride in it. The urbanites don’t cotton to strict orthodoxy.

Secondly, media has changed Egyptian expectations nationwide. State-run semi-Soviet propaganda television is twenty years’ dead, while many now consume international digital broadcasting  including networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and Internet news covering regional affairs that Western sources often ignore. This radicalises a minority (in the West and Middle East most terrorist youth came from educated and even privileged backgrounds) but also turned millions to protest what they feared as retrograde authoritarianism from Morsi. The vast majority of Egyptians seem to want materialism as much as democracy, another worry for Morsi and his ousted team

TIC 2 Egypt armyEnter the army. Cynical Western politicians and media, reporting that the army are merely cronies of Mubarak’s old regime, may miss a point. From Egypt in particular to Baathists overall, to a venerably kindred movement in Turkey, these armies stand for order and secularism in equal measure. While Egypt’s officer cadre no doubt have personal loyalties and professional debts to Mubarak’s people, there are older and maybe even stronger values at work too. This confuses Western Progressives, who often resent order and cannot understand anyone giving it top priority; so they accuse the Egyptian military of cronyism which our Progressives understand and often practice themselves.

Enter Western ideology in all of its self-contradictory glory. The “Democracy Always Comes First” guys collide with the “No, Israel Always Comes First” crowd, because the elected Islamists portended some (popular) conflicts over Palestinians. The gang “Always Against Military Rule” clash with fellow Progressives because the colonels are more supportive of women and minorities. Nobody knows which side is best against global warming or saving the desperately cute Egyptian Tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) . American Imperialists sweat over which side to back with your tax-dollars: the elected leaders deposed, the military empowered, or some democratic consensus yet to emerge. What is a self-respecting Progressive to do when all sides have some kind of politically incorrect B.O.?

In some cases, all of these cognitive traffic accidents occur within the same Progressive human being and it may drive him to drink; to paraphrase an old Soviet joke, the inevitable stage before Progressivism may be Alcoholism

It seems plausible that the Egyptian army sense an emerging secular consensus, and seized power before Morsi could establish religious autocracy. They probably know that they cannot rule forever. It also seems plausible that the army will take its time to relinquish power; for even among honest people focused on order, reform tomorrow always looks safer than reform today. Either way will come as relief to Egypt’s ten million Copts, who otherwise would have been expelled as their fellow Christians were, with American compliance, from Iraq and are now from Syria.

This suggests an agenda for Western Progressives in general: go about building an ideological heaven (cough) at home and leave the Egyptians to muddle along. They preceded the pyramids, after all, and their shorter-lived civilisations still lasted longer than America has so far (as an Afghan cabinet minister-friend snapped at a pushy US diplomat: “we have carpets that are older than your whole country!”).

But what should the Yanqui Imperialistas do? I mean the NeoCons and the defence contractors and the dips and pols all wringing their hands. Obviously, back all sides and spend even more money. Then, when the Egyptians get settled, all groups can hate Americans equally. In a way it builds national unity.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Masty’s insights are most welcome. One hopes American policymakers read this and get some much needed knowledge about the situation in Egypt. Better yet they should consult Mr. Masty before making any decisions.

    There is one other factor I would like to focus attention on. Morsi’s government has totally failed in feeding the masses of Egypt. The dwindling supply of subsidized bread is a major factor in millions of Egyptians taking to the street to demand change.

    • Mr Roth, thank you for your kind comments. As I understand it, Egyptian food subsidies are both old and very costly, a problem for Morsi and any government thereafter but hardly Morsi’s doing. No doubt a culture of dependency on foreign aid has hurt, but when I was first in Cairo in 1981 American aid was in its infancy there and food subsidy was already a clear disaster-in-the-making. I suspect it began with the Baathists and the USSR.

  2. Something for us westerners to learn, as always, Steve. I wonder, as I always wonder about things happening in this region, where are the Christians, and who is going to persecute them this time?

    • John, it is the greatest treachery of the age and repercussions may last far longer than we believe – the Christians being driven from the region might have been useful in brokering peace some day, but they are mostly gone already thanks largely to America. Depending on Egypt and the US reaction, across the M East they may be virtually all gone in a decade. Every Copt who can is plotting his escape from Egypt; Christian descendants of the pharaohs. The recent coup is a respite and a hope for them.

      The secularist regime in Iraq was toppled by American lies, and now Syria, wiping out 2,000 years of vigorous Christian culture. Egypt may be next. Groups remain insular there in the Middle East, so Christians are already suspected of being pawns of America/Israel. They are natural targets for radical Islamists indigenous and insurgent, and for the simply greedy who want their ancestral lands.Their last protection came from autocrats – in Iraq before and Syria now have been minority-led Muslim regimes (Tikriti Sunni and Allowite Shia respectively) who protected other minorities such as Christians. The West is stomping on their oxygen tubes. I gather there are virtually no Christian Assyrians left in Iraq; they are mostly in Canada, and that is the likely scenario for Christians across the region. Western Christians don’t seem to care. American Protestant snake-handlers care only for Israel (itself no friend of Palestinian Christians) while rattling their tambourines and baying for the Rupture or the Rapture. When/if it comes, the bastards better have fire-insurance.

  3. As an Egyptian Copt and a frequenter of this venerable site, let me say loud and clear that there have been no shortage of subsidized bread, with due respect to Allen, as I’m a customer of 3 different distribution bakeries in my area (depending on which route I’m taking; there’s almost 1 such bakery for every block). Although I can afford the more expensive “fino”, or Western-style, bread, there’s simply no way to get the traditional “balady”, or Country, whole-wheat bread except subsidized. Besides, no one dislikes a little saving now and then!

    Though not necessarily a proof of long-term food shortage, think about it: the millions who took to the streets and squares for long hours, sometimes consecutive days, couldn’t do so without a reliable supply of sustenance. And they could afford to lose a few days’ pay–no big deal–they and their family (unlike the 2011 revolution, this one was signified by the participation of whole families!) I excuse Allen, he can’t zoom through his tv or computer screens into the crowds to gleam a look, for example, of how they’re stylishly attired or how most of them are holding the latest smartphones, and thereby deducing if these really are people spurred by shortage of subsidized bread! As I said, I excuse Allen, he must think that Egypt is just a third country so full of people in tatters who barely scrape a living. Tip: we should travel more; it broadens up one’s horizon.

    This’s not to say there weren’t strictly material reasons for people to come out in droves; 2 particular kinds of shortages stand out: first the regular BLACKOUTS in the summer following the ousted president Morsi’s election and this spring/summer, in tandem with people turning on their A/Cs, which are so widespread here in Egyptian homes and which are, without contender, the most power-avaricious device in a home. These blackouts weren’t extreme, usually lasting for 1 hr, at most 2, mostly during the evening. And they varied in regularity, repeating in 2 days running, for example, and then not for days. (One of the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood during the election campaign was,”We’re bringing goodness to Egypt,” so after this, people poked fun at them with, “We’re bringing darkness to Egypt!”) The government blamed it on deteriorating power stations, and also hinted at some irresponsible citizens, esp. shopowners, notorious here for their extravagent light fixtures and displays, coupled with fact that in major cities such as Cairo or Alexandria, most shops never close before midnight, many past that, and a few–mainly coffee shops–literally *never* close! The gov’t tried to ease things up a bit by trying to make shops close at 10 p.m., which was met with public uproar (again, esp. by shopowners) and the gov’t had to back up. Personnaly, I sympathized with the gov’t. As a matter of fact, as a dweller of a bustling Cairo main street, I welcomed the power outages as a respite from pollution of both eyes and ears (some shopowners have a rather nasty habit of playing the stereo too loud). Even the air gets suddenly clear during those times!
    The other major shortage, a more recent one, one arising in the past month and a half or so, is that of GAS. Vehicle lines at filling stations gradually became longer and slower, sometimes purportedly lasting for hours. Even those who don’t have cars paid the price through sluggish traffic circulation or increased fair, esp. by cab drivers. A gasoline black market quickly flourished. A statement by a minister that the problem was exaggerated and was mainly “psychological” didn’t help. It incurred people’s sarcasm just as much as their wrath.
    Between the 2 summers and the 2 shortages, the first year of Morsi’s presidency was marred by a series of crises: a controversial Constitution; the occupation of Sinai by radical militias and the repeated killings of Egyptian soldiers; hardheaded judges; the brutal treatment of police toward protesters; the excessive–and sometimes deadly–violence by some Bortherhood supporters; rising Qatari influence; and even the construction by Ethiopia of dams along the Nile–decried as a national security, even existential, threat–was blamed on Morsi!
    Whatever the reasons that precipitated the Brotherhood’s downfall, one cannot overestimate enough the role of the Media: forget facebook and twitter; I’m talking the dozens of independently-owned satellite channels and newspapers. Even the national newspapers, conventionally the mouthepiece of the gov’t, became opposition! The effort of the media, many and competitive as they may be, could only be described as concerted, ceaseless, and directional. From the onset, during the presidential campaign, reports of fraudulent ballots, bought votes, or intimidation of voters flooded in. After Morsi won, the accusations didn’t stop, with a few charismatic tv personalities going as far as denouncing him as a president.
    From attacks over Morsi’s legitimacy we mone onto nitpicking: in his first speech, Morsi addresed the crowds with an uncommon expression: “My family and tribe.” The media grabbed at it! “Does he think we still live in the 7th century?” And from then on they referred, tongue in cheek, to his supporters as “his family and tribe”… Shortly after Morsi took office, a trajic train accident occurs. One of the major independent newspaper’s headline reads, in very bold, red type on thre first page: “Losers and Muderers”… Morsi’s abroad; he adjusts his pants. Headlines? “Morsi scandalizes us in front of the world.” He’s in a press conference with Angela Merkel; he glances at his watch. You’d think from the offended headlines that we’re Germans!… In his interview with Time, Morsi allegedly starts in English but, challenged, continues in Arabic. The media invokes a quote from a popular play about a stupid character: “Is that English, Morsi?!”… He’s abroad (again) and tells a well-known proverb about a monkey (well, he brought that one on himself).
    Not that the media are so liberal and secular. For instance, when a leading figure in the Brotherhood invited Jews expelled during Nasser’s regime to come back (not that that would be a wise idea) and be compensated, the same media accused him of high treason (!), and called the Jews “the killers of the prophets”. When another leading figure expressed his openness to the idea of releasing Mubarak and his sons in return for the money they allegedly stole, the media cried “traitors!” (again) and accused him of giving up on the so-called “blood of the martyrs”–a term the media’ve before derided the Brotherhood for using!.
    If you think the media bias is exagerrated, consider this: presenters, now household names, were not only satisfied by promoting opposing opinions, they actually urged people more than once to “go out” and to “take to the streets”, some going as far as telling viewers that they were willing to go to each one and “kiss their shoes” if that will make them go out! All year long before the latest revolution, whenever there was major demonstrations or confrontations between the 2 camps, the media actively urged the military to intervene and put and end to Morsi’s rule, with pleas and headlines of the nature of, “What are you waiting for?”, while the media also made it quite clear, to the public as to the military, that the latter will only intervene if and only if there was a huge number of people in the streets, on the scale of 2011.

    • Shadi, this is fascinating and very valuable – many thanks. And you’re so right about travel. Every TIC reader should visit Cairo some day (if there are only, say, four great cities in the world, Cairo must surely qualify as one of them). And my visits there to Coptic churches over the years are among my most moving memories. You guys aren’t just historically important; you are an essential core component of living Christendom, worthy of every Christian’s support, affection and prayers!

  4. Thank you for this article.

    Shadi, thank you for your informative comments. Is there any way Shadi could comment on a regular basis?

  5. Wow!! What a terrific site….I find the level of civility and actual attempts at informed dialogue so refreshing. I have some very dear friends (my children’s schoolmates’ families) who are Coptic Christians, whom I rely on for their perspective of news back home in Egypt. It’s pretty confusing, since most news sources miss some very important aspects of this time in the Ancient World. My friend told me yesterday that many of the ancient churches Mr. Masty referred to are currently burning…..

    I found this website while looking around for some wider perspective on the Egyptian story. Thanks.

    We also have friends who are Muslims, from Saudi Arabia. I volunteer at my kid’s school, and help her classmates to with reading and writing, in English, of course. Her friend Mohammad was one of my particular young friends, and I am on very good terms with his family. I helped him with his class essay on family traditions, writing about his after-school Islamic school he goes to, where the young boys take turns as Muezin.

    I probably qualify as the “Progressive” referred to above–proud of my country, but expecting much more of us (and my other brothers and sisters in the world) ethically, civilly, than we currently seem committed to….informed consent and informed participation in the greater world seems beyond most of my fellow citizens. I believe that that is a choice, and not a question of capacity–it makes me sad.

    After listening to my Coptic friend’s justifications regarding the coup/not coup in Egypt, I (perhaps too generously) likened Egypt today to the American Revolution. I know that her family has personally experienced–no, is currently experiencing–the Christian Diaspora mentioned above. It’s a real thing. But I cannot disagree with most of the historical analysis I read above, either.

    We are uncomfortable with the real world manifestations of democracy. I told my Coptic friend that I would pray. But I am committed to being informed, as well. I’m sure God asks it of us…….

    Thanks to Shadi for his generous comments from on the ground…..

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