Q: So you’ve just come back from Egypt, perhaps the only country which has managed to be affected and then recover from the Arab Spring revolutions. In Tunisia, Libya, Syria, even in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before that, life had been at least tolerable until the Americans decided to liberate them from the horrid dictators, and ruined them. Libya has not recovered yet, Syria is still a battlefield, Iraq shaky. In Egypt, however, the Muslim Brotherhood government, supported by the Americans, was overthrown in 2013 after a year in power. Is Egypt now returning to what it had been before, at the time of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak?
ST: Ever since 1952, when Col. Nasser led the officers who overthrew King Farouk, Egypt’s military top brass has seen itself as uniquely responsible for the country’s destiny. The role of the military in Egypt at that time was somewhat comparable to the role of the Turkish army as the guardian of Kemal Ataturk’s legacy, which it had maintained until the rise of Erdogan and the subsequent deep transformation of the Turkish society. In Egypt the officers’ ideology likewise was pan-Arabist nationalism, rather than Islamism. The problem of the Muslim Brotherhood had been present all along, however. Its founder Hasan al-Banna was killed in 1949, then Nasser outlawed the group in 1954 and had one of its leaders, Sayyid Qutb, hanged in 1966. More recently Mubarak tried to co-opt them by letting the MB members sit as deputies in the Egyptian parliament, although formally not as Muslim Brotherhood representatives.
Once they came to power in 2012, promising democracy, human rights etc – which was music to the ears of the American government – Morsi and his cohorts rapidly started acting in extra-legal ways and working on a new constitution to their liking. They packed the constitutional assembly with the ostensibly independent Brotherhood supporters, and drafted a new constitution which abolished the equality of men and women as well as religious equality, which would have turned Egypt’s 15-20% Christians into second-class citizens. They evidently hoped to turn Egypt into an Islamic state quite rapidly, before the Army got its act together and responded, and while it was still under intense pressure from Washington not to intervene.
Q: Why did the Americans support the Muslim Brotherhood?
ST: Supporting various Sunni Islamists was an obsession of the Obama Administration, and in particular of Hillary Clinton’s State Department . . . A contributory factor was the influence of Israel on Capitol Hill, and its approach to the Arab world was simple: the worse, the better. From a rational standpoint Bashar al-Assad could have been an acceptable party for the Israelis to negotiate with. The Golan border between Syria and Israel had been calm ever since the Yom Kippur war, and he was a secularist after all; yet they favored the hardest-core Islamists possible, in order to generate internal turmoil . . .
But back to Morsi. He expected that the support from Washington would keep the military at bay because the Egyptian army receives significant resources and equipment from the U.S. But when it became obvious that his government was turning Egypt into an Islamic republic, then-minister of defense General Sisi decided he had to intervene, regardless of any “advice” from the United States. He duly removed Morsi on July 3, 2013, and clamped down on the Brotherhood, arresting tens of thousands of its members. Then came Sisi’s candidacy and victory in the presidential election a year later. Following initial instability and clashes with hundreds of dead, the situation was stabilized; but in the Sinai a low-level Islamist insurgency is still continuing, even after a major Egyptian army cleansing operation there last year. Central Sinai is the only are in Egypt where foreigners are not free to travel.
Q: The Islamists planted a bomb on a Russian airliner in 2015 . . .
ST: Yes, but it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh, in the Sinai, and here we need to make a distinction. Let me be specific. I have driven a thousand miles around Egypt, using Hurghada as my base, traveling to Luxor to the west for two days and to two ancient monasteries to the north after that, and I have not experienced the slightest hint of danger or unpleasantness. Quite the contrary, ordinary people are very agreeable . . .
Q: But are there checkpoints, are vehicles subjected to control?
ST: Yes, indeed. On my journeys in three days I’ve passed through about twenty of them, some police, some military. I had the impression that they knew what they were doing. Returning from Luxor to Hurgadha I strayed onto a brand new road [bypassing Qena] which is apparently not meant to be used by foreigners. Before long we were stopped by a police pickup truck, an officer took my passport and asked me to follow him. Some 20 miles later we came to the junction with the regular main road, the truck stopped on the roadside, I stopped behind it, the man came out, gave me my documents, and wished us a good trip. While foreign visitors are free to drive around as they please, there is also surveillance. And yet, we need some perspective. Proportionate to its population size – Egypt has 90 million, France 60 million – there have been many more victims of jihadist attacks in France over the past 3-4 years.
Q: Does this indicate that authoritarian rule is the only way to keep Egypt safe and stable?
ST: Indeed. ?nother challenge which Sisi faces, however, perhaps more vexing than security, is Egypt’s economy. The country still has a high birth rate and it will reach 100 million people some time around 2025, but they do not have enough water and food.
Q: Do they emigrate? Are they to be found among those waves of migrants heading west?
ST: No, but they tend to go to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf as guest workers. Their problem is that the Egyptians generally have lower level of education than Syrians or Iraqis. A special challenge is inefficient agriculture with backward technology. On top of that, Ethiopia is building a massive dam on the Blue Nile which is certain to lower the level of the Aswan dam to a critical level – and the Nile water is essential to Egypt’s irrigation system.
Q: Are people afraid that they may yet experience domestic strife, like in Syria or Libya? For a while it seemed that the danger of that happening in Egypt was real . . .
ST: Quite the contrary. I’d say that the frightening example of Syria has focused many peoples’ minds on avoiding that kind of situation at any price. Although Sisi won last year’s presidential election by applying rules and methods developed in Mubarak’s and Sadat’s time, it is also clear that he enjoys wide popularity. The country is stable, and as I’ve said before his main challenges are water shortage, lack of food self-sufficiency, and insufficient rate of growth to outpace the rising demographic curve. It is also necessary to phase out expensive subsidies, that for bread first and foremost, but also gas and heating fuel . . . That is the legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who sought to establish state control over all key sectors of the economy which resulted in many years of stagnation. He was also too closely tied to the Soviet Union, which did not bring many benefits to Egypt; this policy was later overturned by Sadat. Sisi now has the task of gradual dismantling of the system of subsidized foods and de facto free irrigation water – farmers pay nothing to pump out of the Nile as much as they can. Until and unless that happens, the Egyptian economy will not register significant growth.
Q: Who stands behind the army and its decision to take control and avoid the bitter fruits of the Arab Spring?
ST: The modern Egyptian army was created by the British. The officer corps enjoys a high degree of internal cohesion and its senior members share the values and outlook cemented at Sandhurst and similar schools. They don’t need anyone to “stand behind” them. They had the ability and the will to do what was needed, in their assessment, to save the country and to ignore the advice from Washington . . .
Q: What was the American motive?
ST: Attempts by successive U.S. administrations to use hard-core Jihadists as a tool of policy started in Afghanistan forty years ago and they have never stopped, not even after 9/11. This has produced schizophrenic situations, notably in Syria where the quest for “moderate rebels” started in 2011 and has never yielded results. Whatever weaponry, vehicles and equipment were sent to these “moderates,” within 48 hours all that would end up in the hands of the Islamic State or al-Nusra al-Sham, the Syrian local subsidiary of al-Qaeda. Furthermore, in all disputes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, America invariably supports the Sunni side. This is still the case with Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s chief regional opponent . . .
Q: The U.S. has never clamored for its democratization, and we can see that Khashoggi’s case has not left a lasting imprint.
ST: With each passing month it seems more likely that Prince Mohamed bih Salman will be rehabilitated. Only a few days ago he announced a program of infrastructure development worth $425 billion, and many U.S. firms will want a piece of action. Let’s not forget many existing contracts, some of which – for weaponry and all sorts of other goods – were agreed during Trump’s visit in the spring of 2017. I believe that both the military-industrial complex and the Washington establishment as a whole already know on which side their bread is buttered.