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On The View From Egypt, Part Three, Or, Could Big Trouble Create A “Biden Challenge” ? November 17, 2008

I have been telling a serialized story about Egyptian politics recently, and my friend noemie maxwell, over at the Washblog, left a comment that suggested to me that I had “buried the lead” during the Part One and Part Two conversations.

We’ve been hinting at Joe Biden’s comments about inevitable challenges to the incoming Obama Administration, as well as describing political repression and the Constitutionalization of a “forever” political majority…but what we haven’t been talking about is why all of this, specifically, is important to US interests—and what a problem Big Trouble in Egypt could be for a new Administration.

Today, that’s an oversight we’re going to fix….and as a result, we won’t be resolving the cliffhanger that ended Part Two until Part Four.

So hop in the car, Gentle Reader, because we have a long ride ahead.

Let’s get this conversation started by answering the title question…why does Egypt pose such a significant potential challenge for US foreign policy?

The Middle East and its neighbors, we all know, represent the greatest foreign policy challenge we face today—and Egypt is not only adjacent to everything in the Middle East, they’re the first Arab country to have made a kind of peace with Israel.

The Gaza Strip is one half of what could eventually become Palestine…and it is surrounded on three sides by Israel—and on the other by Egypt.

The Suez Canal is entirely within Egypt. If access to the Canal were impeded, oil shipments from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq would have to travel entirely around Africa…as well as trade from places such as Indonesia, India, and China heading to the Mediterranean and beyond that, to Northern Europe and the East Coast of North America. The Canal, and the trade it supports, has been so important for so long that the British considered it the “jugular vein” of their Empire—in 1892.

(Here’s a fun fact: it is estimated that 120,000 Egyptian forced laborers died during the construction of the Canal.)

We have an extremely close relationship with Egypt as it relates to our “War on Terror”…and they are very important to our very ugly “rendition” program:

“”If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear-never to see them again-you send them to Egypt.”

–Ex-CIA agent Bob Baer, quoted in Stephen Gray’sThe New Statesman” article “America’s Gulag”

We send lots of people to be interrogated, tortured, and disappeared all over the world—and lots of them end up in Egypt; delivered by our CIA to their SSI (State Security Investigations). How many exactly? No one is telling—and it’s possible that no one actually knows.

One thing we do know: we have been following our longtime pattern of supporting a “repressive strongman” in Egypt, just as we have in so many other countries—and that often comes back to bite us very hard (see: Iran).

Lazoghli Square.

The name conjures up such happy memories…if you were one of those who were married at the Notary Public’s Office down at the ol’ Ministry of Justice offices located on the Square.

If you were one of those who were tortured to death by SSI, in the very same building…well, those memories aren’t so happy.

And it is those memories that we will have to deal with should President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party lose their hold on power suddenly—and it is those memories that have the potential to make things very bad for the US, not just for bilateral relations, but for our relations across the Islamic world.

How bad might it get?

You may recall from our last conversation that essentially the only political opposition that is not the Muslim Brotherhood is the Al-Ghad Party…and you may recall from our last conversation that Ayman Nour, Al-Ghad’s 2005 and 2008 Presidential candidate (and the subject of the cliffhanger from the last story), has been in and out of prison lately.

The de facto current leader of the Al-Ghad Party, Wa’el Nawara, offered this assessment of the potential problems ahead in an email I received just last evening:

Egypt is key to the region’s stability and development … the situation is even more critical than Iran …

If Egypt falls … the entire Middle East and North Africa fall – from Pakistan to Morocco – into chaos, or into the hands of extremists or back to the extremists or back to the age of one-military-coup-every-six-months.

With the eradication of all moderate opposition and the elimination of any real political process, the political situation in Egypt is so uncertain and fragile to the extent that no one knows what happens when Mubarak leaves. Building a political process and tolerating real secular opposition is an insurance policy for stability which the Egyptian regime has persistently failed to subscribe to.

And therein lies the answer to today’s question.

Two things are required to turn Egypt into a foreign policy challenge for the new Administration: there has to be the potential for great damage to peace and stability if Big Trouble should come…and there should be some indication that Big Trouble might be on the way, sooner rather than later.

If Wa’el Nawara is to be believed, the potential for great damage is definitely there…so now what we need to know is whether Big Trouble might really be on the way, sooner rather than later.

Well, folks, I believe it may be…but that will be the second cliffhanger we will resolve in Part Four of this story.

Since we’re running a bit long, and I’m trying to avoid 4,000 word stories, we’ll end today’s conversation with a final thought from Wa’el Nawara:

I just hope that the new US Administration will be able to develop rapport and in fact build some leverage … in the relationship with Egypt … soft leverage … based on partnership and mutual interests … such that this leverage can be used to talk the regime into affecting much-needed political reform and democratic transformation. This is the only way to insure long-term stability in Egypt and the Region.

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