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Published on: February 12, 2011
Mubaraks, Mamelukes, Modernizers and Muslims

Pharaoh Hosni is out; the Mubarak dynasty is done.  This had to happen and, whatever comes next, the downfall of an undemocratic leader well past his sell-by date is a good thing in and of itself. The nation of Egypt is not a personal possession to be handed down like an heirloom from generation to […]

Pharaoh Hosni is out; the Mubarak dynasty is done.  This had to happen and, whatever comes next, the downfall of an undemocratic leader well past his sell-by date is a good thing in and of itself. The nation of Egypt is not a personal possession to be handed down like an heirloom from generation to generation.  On this Egypt’s liberal middle classes, military leaders and Islamic activists agree — and they are right.

Hosni Mubarak overreached and his undignified exit is the penalty for that misjudgment.  What is important now is not the fate of one man, or even of one family, but of a whole nation: 85 million rational beings, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights which they are newly prepared to assert.  How effective will they be at securing their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  How successful with they be, after a “long train of abuses and usurpations” at reasserting control over their own destiny, constructing a new government and as our own revolutionaries put it “laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”?

Egypt is an old country; I’ve been to Delta villages between Cairo and the sea where it was hard to see much sign of change since Cleopatra plied these waters on her barge.  It’s also a wounded country; few places have been so deeply affected and so transformed by uncontrollable outside forces for so long in modern times.  Both its age and its wounds will be working against it now; and as has been the case since the Babylonians first conquered Egypt more than 2500 years ago, the Egyptians must reckon with foreign interference and foreign interests even as they work to set their house in order.

Egypt entered modernity with a bang when Napoleon invaded in 1798.  It was a horrible shock for the Egyptians.  Centuries ago French crusaders arrived under Louis IX; the Egyptians had little trouble sending them away as the Seventh Crusade collapsed.  Though conquered by the Ottomans in 1517, Egypt held an honored place in the Middle East.  It was an unrivaled center of learning with the religious schools that grew into the University of Al-Azhar revered from Sumatra to Senegal.  The Ottoman Empire was arguably the most advanced empire in the most complex culture in the world; Egypt had a unique and prestigious role in the domain of the Ottoman Caliph, the Shadow of God on Earth.

Then came Napoleon and the glory fled.  Somehow, since 1254 the Europeans had developed weapons, tactics and forms of military organization that the Egyptians could not match.  Napoleon landed on July 1, 1798 and by July 22 he had defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of the Pyramids and received the surrender of Cairo.  A brief revolt was easily crushed; Napoleon had become the absolute master of Egypt.

The Pyramids of Egypt (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Shocked by their helplessness before this invader, Egyptians were among the first countries in what we now call the “third world” to adopt a goal of catching up with and perhaps one day overtaking the west.  Their first modernizing ruler was Muhammad Ali, an Albanian general in the Ottoman Empire who received power in Cairo in an early exercise of people power.  After defending his position by defeating a British force supporting his Mameluke enemies, Muhammad Ali invited the Mamelukes to a feast in the citadel of Cairo 200 years ago this March 1.

The Mamelukes were ‘slave-soldiers'; often bought from non-Muslim families as boys throughout the region, they were raised to be loyal Muslims, fierce warriors, and disciplined servants of the state.  The idea was that these soldiers, not tied to any local families or tribes, would unite in service to the state itself; they would be wedded to the common good.

It was a popular ideal in the Middle East.  In modern Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, slave-soldiers played a major and often glorious role in the great Islamic states.  Yet over time, they grew corrupt and complacent.  They married into wealthy families; they developed vested economic interests of their own.  They were less interested in military victory than in stabilizing their political position at home.  By the turn of the 19th century, they were seen as an obstacle to progress.   In Constantinople and in Cairo, modernizing rulers thought it was time for them to go.

That is what Muhammad Ali was up to when he invited the Mamelukes to a feast celebrating the start of an expedition to Mecca to defeat the rebellious House of Saud.  They came; he killed them and over several weeks of violence about 4,000 more were killed in Cairo and throughout the country.  No more slave soldiers and no more military rule; Muhammad Ali founded a dynasty that would rule until the revolution of 1952 and began the first of Egypt’s many failed attempts to modernize and catch up with the west.

Muhammad Ali and his successors understood what the Japanese learned when Commodore Perry arrived in his black ships: the guns and ships of the west represented a new kind of power and they would have to master it or fall before the west.  Japan got it done; Egypt failed, and the Europeans took over.

It was not for lack of trying.  Muhammad Ali and his successors built railroads, encouraged the cultivation of cotton, welcomed foreign investment, supported the construction of the Suez Canal, and encouraged education.  They reformed the law codes, tried to build modern state structures, subverted the authority of the Ottoman sultans, and did their best to project power into their near abroad: Syria, Palestine, Sudan and the districts of what is now Saudi Arabia around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.  They welcomed foreign experts and engineers to the country; after the US Civil War both Confederate and Union officers found ready employment in Egypt. They did their best to play the European powers off against one another, tilting toward Britain or France as circumstances dictated, and trying to draw Russia into their concerns.

There were times when it looked as if it was working — for example on Christmas Eve in 1871 when Verdi’s Aida (commissioned by Muhammad Ali’s grandson Ismail Pasha) had its world premiere in the Cairo Opera House as the gathered European glitterati applauded.  As the proud pasha said in 1879: “My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe. It is therefore natural for us to abandon our former ways and to adopt a new system adapted to our social conditions.”

Unfortunately Ismail (often called “the Magnificent”) was better at going into debt than in making productive investments; mounting and unpayable international debts left Egypt open to increased British interference; the first era of Egyptian modernization and development ended with a British takeover in all but name.

During the British period, Egyptians continued to work to bring their country into the modern world.  In the 1940s the Egyptian Stock Exchange was the fifth largest in the world; a modern banking and corporate sector brought great wealth to a very small number of Egyptians and European expats. When combined with public resentment at British control and disgust at the antics of the dissolute puppet King Farouk, this led to the revolution of 1952 that brought Gamal Nasser and his nationalist and Socialist allies to power.

Under Nasser, Egypt shifted from the liberal strategies of modernization that seemed to have failed under Farouk and his predecessors to the socialist models of development touted by the Soviet Union and India.  Egypt launched into an era of state guided development geared towards heavy industry and large projects like the Aswan Dam.

In one sense, Nasser and his allies represented the revenge of the Mamelukes.  The ideal of the professional army with no ties beyond loyalty to the state is powerful throughout the region.  Many military officers in this part of the world see themselves as the spiritual heirs of these dedicated state servants of earlier times.  And they see civilian politicians (accurately much of the time) as greedy and grasping just like the ancient feudal and tribal leaders who in past centuries tried to weaken the state to protect their selfish interests.

Nasser’s revolution ushered in a return to something like Mameluke rule; since Nasser’s victory, the army — very much an institution with its own life and values somewhat separated from the civilian world — has been the core of the Egyptian state.  Under Sadat the ne0-Mamelukes changed their policies; socialist planning and the relationship with the USSR failed to modernize Egypt so they switched to a more capitalist and pro-US orientation.

The resulting growth made some of the modern day Mamelukes rich and complicit in the system (a traditional source of Mameluke corruption and weakness) but failed to satisfy the Egyptian hunger for affluence and development. At the same time, President Mubarak sought to convert the Egyptian state into a family jewel.  This latest round of discontent reflects the confluence of two streams: the military’s neo-Mameluke hatred of dynastic rule and corrupt political tribes, and public discontent at Egypt’s poor economic condition and general failure to catch up with the west.

In all this chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood represents the road not (yet) taken in Egypt.  Their message is a seductive one and it is not entirely wrong: Egypt, they say, can only modernize on the basis of its own religion and culture.  To import models from the west like Ismail the Magnificent is a mistake.  Commissioning operas and inviting Europeans to fancy parties in glittering ballrooms is not the way to make Egypt rich and respected; Egypt must find its own authentic path to greatness and modernity based on the deep values and faith of the Egyptian people.

In a certain sense that is profoundly true.  A people must build on its past; the culture of liberty that we have developed in the United States is our greatest national treasure, the citadel of our freedom and the source of the wealth and power we possess.  But it is far from clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of Egypt’s religious and cultural values is wise or deep enough to lead Egypt forward.

In any case, Egypt today offers the spectacle of a young revolution inheriting some old problems.  Two hundred years of frustrated hopes and successive failure create a sense of cynicism and despair among some Egyptians.  They have tried a liberal, pro-British approach; it failed.  The statist, pro-Soviet approach didn’t work either.  The neo-liberal, pro-American policy hasn’t made Egypt rich the way it made, for example, Taiwan and Singapore rich.  Traditional Muslim values and education meant that Egypt slept while Europe raced ahead; since then, neither Mamelukes nor Mubaraks have helped Egypt catch up.

Painting of a Mameluke (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The hopeful young people in Tahrir Square are fighting the inertia of Egyptian history.  They passionately believe that something better and different can come.  In a country and a culture rooted in the past they assert the possibilities of, well, hope and change.  And there are more of them, and they are better educated and more widely traveled, than any comparable group in the long history of Egypt.  They may yet succeed where their parents and grandparents failed.

We shall see.  A workable economic strategy for a country of 85 million people, most of whom are not well educated and speak no languages except their own, is not easy to develop in this hyper-competitive world of ours.  The low wage manufacturing business is a competitive one today: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and many others are fighting for the scraps that fall from China’s table.  Can Egyptian workers outproduce the Vietnamese?

From Lebanon to the Gulf, the Arab world is filled with aspiring financial and service centers.  Can Egypt’s crowded cities and turbulent politics lure investors and executives from Abu Dhabi and Doha?  Will the fleshpots of Egypt outdraw the restaurants and the nightclubs of Beirut?

W.H. Auden’s poem “The Sphinx” says it best.  This is a hurt land, and the pain is likely not yet over.  But I would not be too pessimistic.   When I was back in pundit school our teachers used the pyramids as an example of wasteful spending: the pharaohs bankrupted Egypt by spending all its money on monumental tombs.

It must have seemed that way to many Egyptians at the time, but from a distance of 5,000 years the pharaohs seem a little smarter.  With millions of tourists flocking to Egypt to see its monuments and its mummies, it’s hard to think of any other investments the ancient pharaohs could have made that would offer a better payoff for their remote descendants today.

The dynasts are gone; the soldiers remain; the liberals aspire; the Brotherhood waits; Egypt is trying to catch up with the west.  None of this is new; stay tuned.

show comments
  • http://freealabamastan.blogspot.com Paul A’Barge

    You left out the part where they enslaved the Jews for hundreds of years.

    [Improper suggestion deleted — ed].

  • brad

    It would have been useful to consider external factors such as the looming financial bankruptcy of the West along with the attendant decline in other areas such as security, technology, contractual transparency and fidelity and the rule of law.

  • http://www.xrdarabia.org John Burgess

    I’m sure it’s just a slip of the pen, but in Paragraph 7, I think you mean ‘non-Muslim’ families, not ‘non-Christian’.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ John Burgess: thanks! Following our longstanding practice, developed after careful study of the best models in corporate America, we have corrected the error, disciplined the interns, reduced pensions for long term staff and awarded performance bonuses to senior management for dealing so quickly and forthrightly with the problem.

  • M. Report

    Is the price of wheat still going up ?

    After the Arab Street misses a few meals,
    will it put hand to the plow or the sword,
    choose happiness in this world or the next ?

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    “To me it seems certain that the fatalistic teachings of Muhammad and the utter degradation of women is the outstanding cause for the arrested development of the Arab. He is exactly as he was around the year 700, while we have kept on developing”
    — General George S. Patton: The War as I Knew it

    Churchill offered similar sentiments.

    Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. – Winston Churchill

    I have only given a part of the Churchill quote. The rest is instructive as well.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The hopeful young people in Tahrir Square are fighting the inertia of Egyptian history.

    No, they’re fighting the inertia that everyone from Lebanon to the Gulf is fighting. Will they overcome it? Inshallah.

    it’s hard to think of any other investments the ancient pharaohs could have made that would offer a better payoff for their remote descendants today.

    Personally, I’m glad our stone age ancestors of that time spent their days bickering about who and how to run the tribe in the forest primeval. Our inheritance is much richer and more valuable than their pile of rocks. And actually we were left piles of rocks too.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    My previous comment did not get posted so let me say that the trouble is with Islam and it started around the 10th Century IIRC when Islam went for faith instead of reason.

    http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2007/01/no-word-for-liberty.html

  • carvak

    so why japan succeeded and egypt didn’t?
    why china (and india?) looks like succeeding ?

  • Mrs. Davis

    The second paragraph of my comment above is my own thought. Sorry for the editing error.

  • David Chappell

    Also in regards to paragraph 7 and the source of Mameluke slave soldiers- they were from non-Muslim, i.e. primarily Christian families. But they weren’t bought- they were either captured in raids from the Christian countries surrounding the Mediterranean or given up by their families to pay crushing taxes. This is important. If the past is rewritten so that Muslims have always been the victims rather than active participants in wars that ebbed back and forth, then that sense of victimhood can be used to justify current day Jihadist attacks today. Tony Blair recently gave a speech on the danger of this Muslim as victim meme.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    so why japan succeeded and egypt didn’t?
    why china (and india?) looks like succeeding?

    Japan and China have ethical based religions and The ME has a faith based religion.

    The West was helped by a leavening of Jews (an ethical based religion – mostly) and the Enlightenment where the shackles of religion were thrown off.

    Christianity – a faith based religion – has hampered the West. Fortunately Galileo taught the Church a lesson.

  • TehAllSeeingEye

    The author, highly intelligent though he is, got it wrong.
    Egypt adopted European Liberal or Soviet Socialist models only on the surface. The nation has ALWAYS been shackled with its feudal islamic legacy, which the Muslim Brotherhood – in its hyperdelusional utopian idealist fantasy – wants to bring back in its full ‘glory.’
    The solution is more American than anything else. Power must not be concentrated; it must be distributed widely. Information must flow without restriction. And every man must be allowed to keep his belongings and the product of his labor.
    That is why Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea succeeded and Egypt failed – the Far East adopted (to at least some significant extent) the above principles, whereas the Egyptians never even got close to doing so.

  • WigWag

    Unfortunately, the Egyptians are incapable of partnering with the one nation in the region with a sophisticated economy, an entrepreneurial culture, an advanced technological base and a prudent financial sector. Of course, that country is Israel whose achievements are nicely explained in Dan Senor’s “Start-Up Nation.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Start-up-Nation-Israels-Economic-Miracle/dp/044654146X

    Like so many Arab societies, Egyptian society is paranoid and obsessed with conspiracies. It wasn’t more than two months ago that Egyptian officials blamed Israel’s Mossad for a series of shark attacks that took place off the coast of Egypt’s Red Sea resorts. A society where a sizable proportion of the population is convinced that the Mossad telepathically orders shark attacks is not a society that is likely to advance very far economically. It is certainly not a society that is likely to partner with the one nation in the Middle East that it might actually learn something from.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11937285

    Let’s remember that after the 9/11 attacks, a substantial number of Egyptians thought that Israel instead of Al Qaeda was behind the attacks.

    A World Public Opinion poll conducted in February 2007 found that 28% of respondents in Egypt believed Al Qaeda were responsible. 9% said the U.S. government was responsible, 29% said Israel and 5% named another country. 29% said they did not know.

    The same polling organization repeated the poll one year later; it found that 16% of respondents in Egypt believed Al Qaeda were responsible. 12% said the U.S. government was responsible, 43% said Israel and 11% named another country. 18% said they did not know.

    I wish the Egyptians well and I hope that their Revolution is successful in creating a relatively liberal society even if it has an Islamic tinge.

    But I think it’s important to remember that Revolutions rarely succeed at changing the nature of a society even when they succeed at changing who’s in charge politically.

    Russians lived in an authoritarian society under the Czars; they lived in an authoritarian society after the Bolshevik Revolution and now that communism has fallen, they live in an increasingly authoritarian society under Putin and Medvedev.

    Under the Shah the Iranians had to contend with his secret police, SAVAK and after their Revolution they have to contend with the Revolutionary Guard and the armed Basij militia on motor scooters.

    In Cuba, Fulgencio Batista threw his political opponents into notorious and filthy political prisons; since the Revolution, the Castro brothers have been doing the same thing for 51 years.

    Culture trumps revolutionary change most of the time. Unless the Egyptians succeed at overcoming their paranoid and conspiratorial political culture; their Revolution is likely to change nothing that matters.

  • Tom Holsinger

    I strongly recommend today’s article about Egypt on Strategy Page:

    http://www.strategypage.com/qnd/israel/articles/20110212.aspx

    “… But all of Egypt’s problems are internal, mostly in the form of corrupt government officials and most of the economy controlled by a few hundred families. It’s as the Russian czar said once, when asked about his great power, “I do not run Russia, 10,000 clerks do.” It’s the same in Egypt (or any other country). Replacing enough of the several hundred thousand officials (government and business), to really be in power, will be difficult for any reform politicians. Replacing all the current “clerks” with honest ones will be impossible. Eliminating corruption takes a generation or more, assuming you really try. There are centuries of history with that sort of thing, but Arabs tend to consult their own special history book, one found in the fiction section, and full of tales of imaginary Arab accomplishments, and a long list of self-inflicted injuries blamed on others. The fact is that Egypt, like most Arab nations, has long neglected education and economic opportunity. Literacy is only 71 percent, and corrupt officials make it impossible to start a legal business. Economic activity is monopolized by the several hundred families who see nothing wrong with crippling the economy for their own gain …”

  • liamascorcaigh

    @carvak “so why japan succeeded and egypt didn’t?
    why china (and india?) looks like succeeding ?”

    Might I suggest a quality that rhymes with ‘haiku’. Nowadays it is the power that dare not speak its name.

  • srp

    It is wrong to think that a country needs to become internationally “competitive” in order to develop. What is Luxembourg “competitive” in? Spain? Poland? All of these places are much, much better off than Egypt.

    It’s true that the Egyptians can speed up their development by exploiting Ricardian comparative advantage and Smithian scale-based division of labor on the international market. But if the fundamentals of the country culturally and institutionally remain unfavorable to private enterprise, industry, accumulation, and innovation then they’re going to have a heck of a time raising their standard of living. And if they do improve those things then they’ll get richer, regardless of how they fare in export competition.

  • Jim.

    @M. Simon: Back in the 8th century (752, IIRC) Muslims, or at least one particular faction in the Caliphate, did in fact try to secularize its culture according to “Reason”, inspired by the Hellenistic writings (especially Galen) that would later spawn the European Renaissance.

    In the name of secularism, in an effort known as “al Minha”, this faction gathered up devout Muslim scholars, and attempted to force them (by torture and threats of execution, often carried out) to recant their faith.

    Some of the survivors founded schools of thought that to this day deeply distrust secularizing influences — schools whose disciples include OBL, and perhaps (here my memory fades a bit) the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The Inquisition left scars on some Enlightenment schools of thought that have not been healed by centuries of Christian habits (not to mention ideology) of non-violence. The same sort of scars are left by secular violence and atrocity — acts of which atheist societies (see: fascists, communists) have certainly not been innocent throughout the 20th century, or even merely secularized societies, even in the first decade of the 21st (see: Abu Graib).

    So, a few requests, M. Simon:

    – When people do not respect or desire “Reason” as you do, please stop assuming that that is out of some defect on their part.

    – Please stop assuming that Reason and Faith are irreconcilable (See: all of Western Civilization, esp. the 19th century.)

    – Please stop assuming that Reason without Faith is superior (again, see: fascism, communism; also, French Revolution.)

    Thank you.

  • M. Montagne

    M. Simon wrote,
    >>I have only given a part of the Churchill quote. The rest is instructive as well.<<
    Could you please give the source of the quote so we could read the rest of it?

  • willis

    “How effective will they be at securing their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”

    Surely you are begging the question. They will opt for Sharia law. Slavery is their freedom.

  • Tom Holsinger

    One of the major points to consider, in light of my quotation from Jim Dunnigan’s Strategy Page article, is the relatively small proportion of Egypt’s population which comprises the “ownership” group. Political power and wealth are synonymous in Egypt and most Arab countries.

    Note, by contrast, that the Chinese Communist Party comprises at least 5% of China’s population. That and the Party’s development of an orderly, regular, INSTITUTIONAL transfer of power between individuals at the top is critical to the continued existence of the Party, and to stability and economic growth in China.

    IMO American policy objectives in Egypt should be:

    1) Keep the Muslim Brotherhood and related Islamic extremists well out of power. See Richard Fernandes’ Three conjectures here for the most likely outcome if we fail at this –
    http://belmontclub.blogspot.com/2003/09/three-conjectures-pew-poll-finds-40-of.html

    2) Foster creation of a stable post-Mubarak regime controlled by the Egyptian armed forces;

    3) Foster creation of a orderly, regular, institutional means of transferring power at the top in Egypt to minimize the chances of Islamic extremists to gain power in the disorder following an irregular, unplanned and uncontrolled regime change;

    4) Broaden the power base of the post-Mubarak regime so as to create as many “stake-holders” in the regime, and economic/political order, as possible;

    5) Foster economic growth in Egypt as much as is possible within these parameters.

  • Alt

    Excellent article. Mr. Mead, you’re such a wonderful source of thoughtful realist commentary. I wish I could find more – I’m a pretty hardcore leftist but always interested to read other perspectives, as long as they’re not [unnecessarily uncomplimentary characterization deleted — ed] like most of your commenters. Geez people, can’t you learn something from the man?

  • http://juliekinnear.com Julie Kinnear

    But if Egypt wants to achieve the economic prosperity that its people have been denied for such a long time the country necessarily needs to cooperate with the rest of the world. And I am afraid the Muslim Brotherhood can really cause many problems in this area with all their anti-American ideas.

  • Vi Nguyen

    Professor Mead,

    The way you listed out the past struggles of Egypt seems to minimize the people-driven revolution that just gained its first major victory against the 30-year old autocratic rule of Mubarak.

    While plenty of political thinkers, politicians and past rulers have tried to “follow the West” or “deliver Egypt and the Arab World back to its former Greatness” –few of them have involved the mass to such a scale.I am still learning Arab World history from Prof. Mausher at the Carnegie Endowment–but when was the last time millions of people flocked to the streets together to demand for a better government? It is through this that Egypt in 2011 is *new*.

    I do agree with you, though, when you subtly mentioned how the Moslem Brotherhood may have it right, how they want to build Egypt from its past. Islam is an integral part of Egypt and the Arab world; much more pronounced in its influence than the Christian values that sustain the roots of American morals. But I think those who believe in the incompatibility of Islam and democracy should do more research. Many of the earliest and most influential political thinkers of the Arab world were Muslims who weaved the idea of a government responsible to its people into the very fabric of Islam (Taymiyya, Tahtawi, Afghani, ec). There are many aspects that may have kept these political thoughts from becoming reality (education, economics, foreign forces trying to promote stability, etc) but I think this may have changed.

    In a sense, the technology available in Egypt today has finally allowed Egyptians to make their government responsible. Nicholas Kristof’s article in the NYtimes today hit on the crucial roles that social media like Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones and Al Jazeera have played and will play in allowing the people to keep their government in check.

    Your caution to tell us to “stay-tuned” is right. Mubarak’s resignation and even the military’s announcement about dissolving Parliament today are just mere battles in the fight that the Egyptians and their supporters must fight for a just and competent government. But we are not watching re-runs here, Professor Mead. If the important actors get it right, we may just get to see unprecedented changes flood across Egypt, the Arab World and the U.S foreign policies in that region.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Vi: I hope that the emergent civil society in Egypt will succeed where other efforts at renewal and reform have failed — and I hope the US will do what we can to help. But a sober look at the immense difficulties they face suggests that this will not be easy or quick.

  • Peter

    Personally, I look for Egypt to become even more of a welfare burden on the U.S.

    The argument will be that we’ll have to pour billions upon billions into Egypt so it doesn’t go radical. And sadly, we might do just that.

  • Luke Lea

    Srp wrote: “It is wrong to think that a country needs to become internationally “competitive” in order to develop.”

    True. Assuming a basic framework of law and order, infrastructure, etc. it is mainly labor than needs to be competitive. For low-skilled labor here in the U.S. — half the population — it means competitive with a hundred million Chinese workers willing to work for less than a dollar an hour. Being “competitive” is not always a good thing if you care about the welfare of your fellow citizens. That’s why the “competitiveness” argument, while good for private capital, is bad for half our population. It is a major factor undermining, not just our blue model, but the very concept of a middle-class society. It is frankly unpatriotic and, in that sense, un-American. It deserves no courtesy.

  • Dean

    Luke writes:

    ” That’s why the “competitiveness” argument, while good for private capital, is bad for half our population.”

    We now have a world economy. Short of the destruction of world civilization, there’s no going back. So we’d better stop whining about the Chinese and start educating our people to work in and be productive in that economy, because the only other option is to end up working for a dollar a day too.

    BTW, where do you think most of the pension money in this country is invested, regardless of color? If you guessed private capital, you win the prize. We ALL rely on the success of private capital. Ensuring its success benefits us all.

  • Anthony

    WRM, excellent rendition of historical Egypt and its entry into “modern world” while grappling to find its way given it’s long geographic history. Developing in this hypercompetitive world of ours economically certainly pose for Eygpt challenges akin to those cited in “God and Gold”…a future of accerlerating change amenable to the prepared nations .

  • phil g

    If Egypt were to look back to their history and culture for their future they’d take a hard look at the Copts among them. But they won’t because they’re mostly another failed Arab colony burdened by a failed Muslim culture.

    They have the highest rate of female genital mutilation in the region. I don’t hold out much hope for them.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I wonder if anyone sees the great victory here, even if Egypt ends up with one man, one vote, one time, they will have seen the promised land of Democracy. Putting Democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan has planted more flags of Democracy, seeds which are slowly growing and influencing all other nations in and out of the region. All nascent Democracies face drawbacks, but everyone in the world now realizes, if only subconsciously, that Democracy is their future. So let Egypt vote, if they fail, the whole world will watch them fail, and our goal of universal Democracy will be advanced, by one more vote. Every time we get a vote, every time the purple fingers wave, we gain a victory as Democracy is accepted by another culture. Eventually the backward cultures will get it right.

  • http://louisproyect.wordpress.com Louis Proyect

    Walter, you refer to Nasser’s “socialism” and his alliance with the USSR. I think that Marx had something much more in mind like the Paris Commune, which was in spirit very much like Tahrir Square. This is something that both the Egyptian army and its friends in Washington both hate and fear. When the Chileans decided to build their own form of democratic socialism in the early 70s, a brutal army coup resulted in a government that economists from the U. of Chicago saw as a model. If the Egyptian workers decide to press their own demands, the army might decide upon a Pinochet type solution. Those are the realities that are ignored in your interesting article that somehow manages to pretend that the Egyptian workers do not exist.

  • Jawad

    An excellent read, but I cannot but wonder if we are fooling ourselves by trying to look for heroes or making heroes out of this mess. As you say, none of this is new. Arabs have had dozens of revolts of this type in the past 50 years. None have yet to result in anything different.

    One thing I don’t agree with is that Mohammed Ali’s rise to power was an example of “people’s power”. Mohammed Ali was an Albanian. He never even learned Arabic. Up to 1952 his dynasty maintained a quite separate identity from the “masses”. They never really were Egyptians, and the people had little to do with it.

    The real question is, has modernity ever been brought to any Arab country? Sure they have shiny buildings in Dubai and Riyadh, but are the people any different? 1400 years of “fatalism” won’t be washed away by Twitter and Facebook.

  • http://www.martinbermangorvine.com Martin Berman-Gorvine

    Thanks as always to Professor Mead for sharing his deep knowledge of history. I think he’s unintentionally letting the Muslim Brotherhood off too easily, however. This dangerous group is waging an all-too-successful propaganda campaign to fool Westerners into thinking it is nonviolent, when it wants to end the peace treaty with Israel and impose an Iranian-style so-called theocratic regime on the country, which would have horrendous consequences for women, non-Muslims and Muslims who do not agree with this approach. They must be fought at every turn.

  • Jim.

    errata from previous post:
    Minha ==> Mihna
    752 ==> 852
    Muslim Brotherhood ==> Hanbali school of sharia law, in Saudi Arabia.

    Serves me right for posting without checking my references.

    http://www.amazon.com/Sailing-Byzantium-Empire-Shaped-World/dp/055338273X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297702608&sr=1-1

  • luke.lea@gmail.com

    Dean says:

    ‘Luke writes:

    ” That’s why the “competitiveness” argument, while good for private capital, is bad for half our population.”

    We now have a world economy. Short of the destruction of world civilization, there’s no going back. So we’d better stop whining about the Chinese and start educating our people to work in and be productive in that economy, because the only other option is to end up working for a dollar a day too.

    BTW, where do you think most of the pension money in this country is invested, regardless of color? If you guessed private capital, you win the prize. We ALL rely on the success of private capital. Ensuring its success benefits us all.’

    Agreed. Now go figure. :) hint: best solution isn’t protectionism but taxing capital to subsidize labor. The alternative is a return to protectionism. Champions of globalism need to get cracking is they wish to save the global economy AND American middle-class democracy. See “Gatt Justice: Who Gets the Gains of Trade.”

  • Tom Kinney

    When I hitchhiked through Egypt in Jan. ’66, Nasser was president and Pan-Arabism was the rage. We purchased our Egyptian currency on the black market in Beirut before sailing deck class to Alexandria and we got four times the exchange rate we would have gotten at Egyptian banks, which were then state controlled. One of Mubarak’s few significant improvements was privitizing banking.

    We also got “student cards” in Alexandria which allowed us to have a further discount. Between the two, it was the one country I was able to take trains instead of hitching. We hitched from Alexandria to Cairo and from Cairo took trains to Aswan where the dam was being built, the Nile being flooded. The cost of 1000 kilometers of third class train seats was $1. A falaffel sandwich from a street vendor was $.01. It was a bawdy, robust town with tons of energy and enough issues to choke a camel. When the train arrived in the Cairo station, people poured out of and into the windows as readily as the doors, and in third class cooked meals in Coleman-like stoves on the train itself.

    The Cairo youth hostel was a old steamship anchored on the Nile. During the time I was there, Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian chanteuse had one of her patented “concerts” where she sang for something like 8 hours straight so everywhere you went you’d hear her on the radio singing continuously.

    There is a continuity to cultures like that of Egypt’s that we can’t begin to understand. While their culture holds them back in many ways, it also gives them a sense of continuity through historic time that’s beyond Westerners. This is the Islamic reformation in action right now, and whatever agonies it inflicts, it is a necessarily process.

    To go from the Aswan Dam to Wadi Haifa, the first Sudanese town up the Nile, which was already swamped and barely existed, we went by small boat. It took three days to go 120 miles and we slept deck class with large rats running over us at night. The only water came from a large clay vase through which it dripped, having been somewhat purified through the process. Passengers would wait in line all day for a couple drops. Abu Simel was being jointly torn down at the time we passed it by Russian and American archeologists.

    Nice post by WigWag. I would tender that conspiracy theorizing–one Cairo professor suggested to Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic that 9/11 was a joint effort by Mossad and the Branch Davidians???say what–comes from the lack of a coherent and responsible media. In that media vacuum, rumor and gossip is king. Lies and dissemblings spread like prairie fires in a mileau like that.

  • andrei rădulescu-banu

    Mr. Mead, I protest. The interns are the only ones disciplined anymore around here.

    So the Mamelukes were done in out the same way and about the same time with the Turkish Janissaries in the North. This is a very interesting story, and the analogy you are making with the military class ruling until recently over Egypt – and over Turkey, I might add – is spot on. The better analogy by which we can judge Egypt is not necessarily Iran, as some might think, but Turkey, who actually ruled Egypt for centuries and shares with it a considerable common culture.

    The Janissaries, forming the feared foot slave-soldier corps of the Ottoman Sultan, were also recruited from Christian families – but in the Balkans. Children were taken away from their Christian families by force, some times, and cynics point out also that a good number of families gladly gave away their offspring to a better life and a much more glorious future in the Sultan’s army.

    Some of these Christian children were marked by their parents burning a cross on their back skin, so that they may never remember their origin. They were then raised in the Religion of Allah, and considered themselves more devout Muslims than their Mohammedan brethren.

    The role of an army of Janissaries, as in the case of the Mamelukes, must have been as a professional corps not beholden to any alliances with the powerful in the Empire. And the Janissaries were the most feared professional soldiers in the siege of Vienna in 1683 – as well as by Peter the Great, in his 1711 Moldavian campaign, who was crushed by the Janissaries at the battle of Stănilești.

    Yet by the 19th Century, the Janissaries suffered a similar fate to that of the Mamelukes – they became less soldiers and more mutineers, extortioners and trouble-makers. In 1826, Sultan Mahmud the IInd incited them to revolt, and then shrewdly used the excuse of the revolt to crush them in a short civil battle where 4,000 Janissaries were massacred. The reason behind his move was, of course, to bring Turkey out of the Middle Ages and to put it on equal foot with the European Powers.

    The Turks were to fight two more wars with Russia, then a Balkan war with Greece and Bulgaria, WWI on the side of Germany, another war with Greece – finally emerging as a modernized country under the strong arm of General Ataturk.

    The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 20th Century coincided with a movement to resist the British, later Israel and the economic interests of the US on the Suez canal and in the proxy oil states. The same exact way, the Orthodox Church was used since the 14th Century as a bulwark for self-determination in Eastern Europe – Wallachia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, against the Ottoman onslaught. To understand Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood it is a bit instructive to look at the East European movement in the 19th Century.

    Because in the 1800s, the resistance movement in the Balkans against the Turks was nationalist and thoroughly Orthodox. In Greece, before 1821, it had been called Filiki Eteria – translated ‘The Society of Friends’. In Wallachia, in 1848 it was called Frăția, which translates as ‘The Brotherhood’. The empires – Austria, Russia, the Ottoman empire conspired to quash the 1848 rebellion irrespective of their other quarrels. Of course, nobody views Frăția today as a retrograde, bigoted organization, and it is Frăția that made the modern Romania state.

    The rules of the game were that the Ottoman Empire, like all the other empires, was cosmopolitan and tolerant of its Christians – at least in the far sides of the empire, not so much in Anatolia. And the resistance movements were nationalistic and Christian, just like Muslim Brotherhood is nationalistic and Muslim in Egypt, since it was founded as it was in 1928 to resist the British occupation. The fact remains, however, that Romania could not have been founded as a modern state were it not for the revolutionary movement of Frăția – nor could modern Greece have existed without the Filiki Eteria.

  • Tom Holsinger

    A likely development to keep in mind is that a takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood would not change its domination by the same small group of families which has run the place since Muhammad Ali finished off the Mamelukes. Rather there will be changes in who’s on top inside those families, with the ones currently dominant being replaced by family members with impeccable Muslim Brotherhood credentials.

    Nicaragua under the Sandinista regime was run by leftist members of the same families who owned & ran it under Somoza, and to a truly comical degree.

    Much the same happened in Iran after the Shah’s fall. The same small group of corrupt families which ran it under the Shah is still mostly in charge, but the families are dominated by those with better religious credentials. The true nutballs have nabbed a fair amount of the oil income, but it’s always about sharing.

  • Tom Holsinger

    Jim Dunnigan at Strategy Page is of the opinion that Mubarak’s problem was insufficient sharing, and that his successor will broaden the new regime only to include the regime protection apparatus.

    It is difficult to be too cynical about such matters.

    http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htmurph/articles/20110216.aspx

    “Storm Troopers Are Not A Luxury

    February 16, 2011: A major reason for the inability of the recently deposed Egyptian dictatorship to suppress anti-government demonstrations was the lack of a large, loyal and reliable security force. Not having such a force handy was unthinkable for any security conscious dictator …

    … Former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak got lazy and greedy by filling his “regime maintenance” forces with conscripts (as troops) and recent college graduates (as officers) …

    … The only people who were loyal to Mubarak were the most senior officers (active or retired) who were allowed a share of the national wealth being stolen by Mubarak, his family and key allies in the business world. By not spreading the largess around, Mubarak insured that he would be unprotected when a popular uprising got started.

    Dictators everywhere are noting what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and what did not happen in other nations undergoing popular uprisings. Expect to see some reorganizations, and more attention being paid to having a reliable KGB, Republican Guard, Waffen SS or Revolutionary Guard when you really need it.”

  • A. J.

    Prof. Mead:
    This is a brilliant and erudite analysis. Please keep posting! Your perspective on world affairs is invaluable.

  • Omar Ibrahim Bakr

    Interesting piece worthy of comment.
    1-I wish Mead did NOT bring in the Mamluk analogy.
    It is contrived, unconvincing and brought in for the sex appeal of the term; an irresistible temptation at alliteration?
    It certainly DOES NOT fit Nasser; a peasant’s son of deep EGYPT in birth and faith. It would though marginally apply to the Sadat/Mubarak, father and son, coterie of self serving, grabbing parasites out to make a fortune and to hell with Egypt; but that is not reason enough to bring in the Mamluks in as an equal forming factor to Modernizers and Islam in Egypt.

    2-A parallelism is drawn and comparison attempted between the Nasserite( Nationalist-socialist///.Soviet/Indian models) and the Sadat-Mubarak ( pro USA///IMF/Free Market) regimes, eras, without any specific conclusions reached.
    Nasserism’s economic model did give Egypt some basic means for, towards, MOERNIZATION: light and semi heavy industries , the High(Aswan) Dam, universal free education etc.etc.
    Sadat/Mubarak’s yielded nothing of the sort; its free market (USA/IMF) favored economy yielded a good number of billionaires and corruption, from the “privatization” and other free market initiatives, of unprecedented scope and scale.

    3-The absence of any mention of Israel in an article devoted to Egypt’s progress and modernization is amazing and defies credibilty.
    Israel inception, through forced implantation on the Arab World in Palestine , has had, from an Arab and Moslem perceptive, a hugely negative effect on Egypt’s and Arabs’ effort at progress and modernization .
    Its further recent USA/EU empowerment into regional super power will have an, as effective and multi faced, negative influence.
    Be that as it may : That no mention of Israel is made is not only incredible but is suspicious.

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