The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on July 1, 2013
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—Memorize That Name

From the very beginning of the so-called revolution in Egypt, I have taken some pains to throw a wet mop in the face of all those clueless Western commentators who believed that democracy, as we understand it, let alone liberal democracy, was at hand in Egypt—or anywhere else in the Arab world save maybe Tunisia. I said at the time in this blog—you can look it up—that the likelihood of any Arab country ending up as a genuine democracy was small, that opportunities for authoritarian-minded political Islam of many shapes and sizes to thrive were large, and, specifically in Egypt, that betting on twittering 20-something “democrats” to outduel the Army over time was a big-time losing proposition.

Just before the election of Mohamed Morsi, in June of 2012, I had this to say in conclusion to a post entitled “The Muddled East (Updated)”: “[W]hen all is said and done, post-revolutionary Egypt will function a whole lot like pre-revolutionary Egypt. It may look a little or a lot different, depending on the density of the constitutional veil now being manufactured, but it won’t really be different.” The Army, in other words, would prevail one way or another.

ai-arab-springAs editor of The American Interest I have imposed my view on the magazine, too. Take a look back at our May/June 2011 issue and you’ll see, from the cover to the inside, that we were very skeptical of all the breathless optimism in the air about the riotously misnamed “Arab Spring.” Compare and contrast with other publications: I dare you.

Why tell you this now? Because just a few hours ago the Egyptian Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, issued an ultimatum to the Morsi government: Fix this ugly roiling mess within 48 hours or you’re breakfast foule. (If you don’t know what this is, MSM guy or gal, it means you’ve never been to Egypt, and you probably don’t know a fava bean from a blue-eyed fart.)

Morsi can’t fix anything, of course, whether in 48 hours or in 48 days. During yesterday’s massive demonstrations the police stepped aside while crowds torched the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters building in Cairo. He doesn’t control the guns, neither in the Army, the police or the para-military police. Four members of his cabinet resigned before al-Sisi’s ultimatum, knowing it was coming. The Army is back, exactly as I said it would be… sort of.

* * *

What do I mean by “sort of”? I will tell you, but first a brief analysis of what has gone so very wrong for Morsi.

I can be brief because my TAI colleague, Walter Russell Mead, has most of the “right stuff” laid down in his excellent blog post from June 29, “A Light Fails in Egypt.” Read it if you haven’t yet. The one thing that’s missing from this fine analysis, and that ties together a lot of the descriptive elements in it, is that Egypt is experiencing a headlong bureaucratic/administrative collapse. It’s important, I think, to understand this, and the main reasons for it.

Since July 1952, increasingly over time, the Army ran the economy. It ran—indeed, it created and it was—the Egyptian deep state. Since Field Marshal Tantawi and the elders were pushed off the stage nearly a year ago, the non-military elements of the state have tried to run what is, on balance, a highly centralized, quasi-socialist apparatus. (Only the local non-monetarized subsistence agricultural economy still works, and even it doesn’t work very well thanks to the state’s incessant meddling in it over the years.) Everything else is collapsing because the sectarian/patriarchal patronage networks that have formed over the past year consist of people who have no idea whatsoever how to run anything. It’s similar, on a much, much larger scale, to what’s been happening in Libya since Qaddafi.

Years ago a clever and truth-telling fellow named David Lamb devised what he called the IBM syndrome to describe political culture in Egypt and the Arab world. The “I” stands for “inshallah“, may God will it: in other words, fatalism.  The “B” stands for “bokr“—tomorrow morning, or just tomorrow: suggestive of an extremely elastic, pre-modern perception of time, vaguely akin to some uses of the Spanish word mañana. The “M” stands for “malesh“, which is untranslatable, but which kind of means “whatever”, “never mind” or “fagetaboutit”: not my job, someone else will take care of it, or not, who cares? What difference does it make?

Now, it is very politically incorrect to say this, but I will say it anyway: A typical Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood rank-and-file type now saddled up on the gyrating entrails of the Egyptian state bureaucracy not only is afflicted with the IBM syndrome, but he does not accept or understand causality as we use the word. Tawhidis (radical unitarians) assert that God recreates the universe in full each instant, so there is no need for causality, since that would imply a diminution of God’s power. He also does not accept the existence of an objective fact separate from how he feels about it, and if he should feel negatively disposed toward the fact, whatever it is, the fact can be made simply to disappear. (Want an example, from elsewhere? Easy: When the mother of the Tsarnaev brothers denied that her sons could be murderers or terrorists, she made a fact disappear, right before her eyes. Some anthropologists call this a votive act, and in some places it is really quite common. Egypt is one of those places.) And he usually cannot navigate even a simple syllogism.

In short, we are talking about mostly culturally pre-modern people who flat-out flunk abstraction. They cannot run a centralized modern state. Obviously, this does not apply to all MB types, and certainly it does not apply to all Egyptians; but it applies to enough of them currently in the state administrative sector to matter. If you don’t believe me, ask an Egyptian who does have a decent Western education. You’ll get quite an enlightening earful.

As it happens, the Army in Egypt is the only institution in the history of the country, at least since Tutankhamun’s time, that does not suffer utterly from the IBM syndrome. That’s probably because its members have long been exposed to modern technology in the form of weaponry and had to adapt themselves to its exigencies—something they have not done especially well, true, but the effort has nevertheless put them a light year or so ahead of the rest of country (save for the elite 2 percent who have Western educations… but, as Walter said, probably most of them live and work abroad). At least the senior Army types understand agency, time and the requisites of basic organizational order. And that is why, from the start of Egypt’s most recent political adventure, I have insisted that the Army will end up running the country. Because, the way it’s been made path dependent on a gigantic dirigiste bureaucracy since Nasser’s time, no one else can.

* * *

Which brings me to what I mean by “sort of.”

Egypt is such a mess—and was becoming that mess in Mubarak’s later years—that the Army developed an interest in not being as directly involved as before in day-to-day affairs, lest blame fall upon it for the state’s manifest and multiple failures. So I thought last summer that the Army would accept a civilian-led, democratically elected government so long as every major actor knew where the red lines were. And the main red lines as far as the Army was concerned were fourfold: We decide our own promotions and retirements; we control our own budget—once we tell you what it is; we control foreign and national security policy; and you keep your hands off the Army-controlled parastatals in the economy that represent our “pension plan”, so to speak.

I was right about that, but I (as well as many smart Egyptians I know) underestimated how fast Morsi would be able to consolidate some charismatic authority, and thus show himself able to wriggle out from under those red lines. I was surprised by how fast Field Marshal Tantawi and company were dispatched from the scene, and I wasn’t sure that the younger generation of officers was as steeled as the old vets, many of whom still remembered King Farouk and the Brits.

Maybe they were all along. Maybe they were just waiting for Morsi and the Brotherhood to hang themselves on the ropes of their own ineptitude and authoritarian instincts. I have heard this theory from some Egyptians. But maybe things just deteriorated faster and further than anyone thought they would. Whatever the case, the Army is now poised to again be arbiter of Egypt’s political future.

So what will happen next? Anyone who claims to be sure is not to be taken seriously. But here’s my hunch.

The Army will not seek to rule formally or openly. Rather, it will convene all the major political forces and dictate a new arrangement for a transitional authority. (A transition to what?  Too soon even to ask; besides, as Adam Ulam once said, nothing endures in politics like the provisional.) The Muslim Brotherhood will be part of the arrangement, to be sure, and maybe Morsi himself will be included in the new pantheon—partly because there is no delicate constitutional way to depose him. Other non-MB civilian names will be named, however, as minister of this and that—including maybe Amr Moussa, Mohamed elBaradei and the like. But the senior echelons of the military will be calling the major shots. The deep state will once again, slowly or not-so-slowly but surely, come under the full direction of the Army. The gas lines will end.

Alas, this will not summarily solve Egypt’s problems, either the immediate ones or the longer-term ones. There will still be “revolutionaries” out in the street 48 and 72 hours from now, most likely, although keeping the MB in the mix ought to diminish outright armed opposition to the new arrangement. Will the Army shoot such “revolutionaries” to restore order? Maybe, and if it shoots the right people—and not too many of them (Egyptians are not like Iraqis; they don’t enjoy violence for its own sake)—most Egyptians will silently applaud.  (The Obama Administration’s warning that Morsi should not shoot protestors is really passing strange: How would he do that, now that the police and Army are pretty much beyond his command?!)

But there will still be no money, and the growing strain on the country’s ability to feed itself will not abate just because of the Army-directed musical chairs soon to come in Cairo. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood government stood, the Qataris have been willing to kick in a few billion dollars a month, but they are not likely to continue that with the de facto return of the Army.

One item on the American “to do” list, therefore, if only our President and Secretary of State can reposition their attention away from their respective obsessions with profoundly old business (I speak of the atavistic perseverations with U.S.-Russian arms control and the Arab-Israeli conflict), would be to twist some Saudi and Emirati arms to replace that money before all Hobbesean hell breaks lose in Egypt. Because it otherwise will, and it may do so anyway.

* * *

Most Americans who have cared to observe what has been happening in Egypt over the past two years do what most Americans always do in the face of telegenic foreign dramas: They superimpose their own unselfaware frames of reference, which are parochial but are presumed to be universal, onto others, where they have neither cultural nor historical reasons for being. And then, seeing what they want to see, and applying the only verbs and nouns they know to describe it, they wonder why they don’t have a clue as to what is happening, or why it is happening.

An example: Some American observers chide the Obama Administration for pushing Mubarak from power because that’s what enabled the rise of political Islam in Egypt; but other observers chide the Administration for not distancing itself faster from the old regime and racing to embrace the new democracy, so that unseemly behavior, like the Morsi government’s conviction of pro-democracy Egyptian and American NGO workers, could have been averted via sincere “engagement.” Both of these views border on the ridiculous.

First, the U.S. Government did not push Mubarak from power; betraying a functioning ally was not its sin. Its sin, its failure, which goes back some years, is that it failed to encourage and support Egyptians’ efforts to plan for the inevitable transition to a post-Mubarak era—and failing that to make our own prophylactic plans for that eventuality. Or do those who argue that we pushed Mubarak from power think that the man was going to live and thrive forever? Have they never seen an actuarial chart? He was 83 and in poor health when he was deposed, for heaven’s sake; the place was falling apart apace with our “ally” infirmly in place.

Second, the idea that the U.S. government could ever have been a decisive factor in Egyptian domestic politics in the throes of upheaval is preposterous. We had no power to make a Muslim Brotherhood government less authoritarian-minded than it was going to be. We had no power to understand, let alone control, the swirling fluid forces of Egyptian society once the bulwarks of Mubarak’s era gave way. We certainly had no power to come to the rescue of a young democracy, insofar as it ever existed. No social receptacle existed to collect the few precious drops of Egyptian democracy there were and turn them into a powerful political force. Between the Army to the one side and the Brotherhood to the other, the idea that a single relatively free election could birth a democracy, in a country with virtually no democratic habits of the heart, testifies only to the cartoonish understanding behind that idea.

This drama has never been about the fate of democracy or liberal attitudes and institutions. That was our passion play, not Egypt’s. This drama has always been about the fractionation and dissipation of traditional sources of social authority in a country that has tried and failed now at least three times since Napoleon’s 1799 invasion to come to terms with the press of modernity. There has been significant and positive social change in Egypt in recent years, but not enough of it to command the political heights–not yet. And maybe not ever, for it has now come down, in the summer of 2013, to the survival of order, any order. It has vanishingly little to do at this point with elections or constitutions or certainly with the U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relationship. American pressmen who think otherwise suffer from the standard failure of our Enlightenment-“lite” imagination.

I’m not rooting these days for the survival of democracy in Egypt because, as Walter Lippmann once wrote, it is a disease of the soul to be in love with impossible things. I am rooting only for the survival of civilization.

  • K2K

    supplemental reading:

    These days, Canada’s msm is refreshingly unimpressed by the CNN-style infatuation with the twitterers of Tahrir, crca 2011.

  • Pave Low John

    A very nice analysis of the situation that faces Egypt in the near term. I had always understood that modern Egypt is a net food importer and, thus, needs some semblance of an organized government to ensure that these imports continue to arrive with some sort of regularity.

    I did have one question, that might be better put in a private communication, so no worries if you don’t feel like answering in this forum. What is your opinion on the job that Amb. Anne Patterson has done up until now? I was involved with some Pakistani programs back in 2008 and 2009, when she was the Ambassador to Pakistan, and I had some deep misgivings on how the embassy was handling the situation in Islamabad. I had no personal contact with Patterson, but her staff seemed a little out of their league, if you catch my drift. Was that something that should have been laid on her doorstep or do modern ambassadors have very little control over how an embassy functions and operates in a foreign nation?

    With regard to Egypt, is there any influence, either good or bad, that she can exert in Cairo or is she just as much a bystander to events as most people? Again, if you would rather not address this, I’ll be glad to shoot you an email and talk about this privately. Thanks again for this enlightening article.

  • Fred Bartlett

    I’m reading Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where I came across this Egyptian Arab proverb: “The world is like a cucumber — today it’s in your hand, tomorrow up your arse.”

    This must explain something deep about Egypt, but I can’t figure out what ….

    • Adam Garfinkle

      I love Durrell’s work, and the Alexandria Quartet especially. Thanks so much for bringing this wonderful quote. I never heard it in Egypt, but I don’t doubt its description. It just sounds Egyptian–Egyptians have by far the best and most sophisticated sense of humor of all the Arabic-speaking countries. As for what it means, well, I think it means that one’s fortunes are subject to rapid change. Ya’ think, President Morsi?

  • Jim Speed, CPA, CHAE (Ret.)

    I will now become a regular reader of your blog – for the same reason I am a reader of Professor Mead. The “Geopolitical” and “Context” that are missing from MSM leaves me hungry for some “Real Meat”.

    This blog reminds me of the how WRM expanded my understanding of the historical context of the Greek situation – it is all context. It is not an American experience, which is all that I knew until recently.

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  • Randall Hoven

    I don’t know anyone who wanted Mubarak in power forever. That is a straw man argument. Mubarak had scheduled elections, but Obama just couldn’t wait the 7 months and supported an immediate coup.

    So instead of a reasonably stable power transition, we got the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi, dead copts, raped reporters, constant protests, a totally broken economy and political chaos.

    To be clear, the choice at the time was (a) Mubarak for 7 more months, then a fairly honest election to replace him, or (b) a coup now and chaotic elections with the MB likely to take power. Obama chose (b).

    • Adam Garfinkle

      This is complex. At the time, the initial sense was to stick with Mubarak, and those were the instructions given to Frank Wisner. But by the time his plane landed, the intell suggested that seven months might as well have been seven years–the judgment was that waiting that long was a non-option, because the military and/or the mobs would preempt. Moreover, exactly how much influence we had on what Tantawi and company decided concerning Mubarak remains speculative at this point: I’ve seen no credible evidence that we made them do something they otherwise would not have done. Nor, at the time, was it clear that the Army post-Mubarak would lose control to the Brotherhood. So I think your contention oversimplifies at least three layers of complexity.

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  • Eric

    Thank you Adam for an excellent and powerful article on the roots of the current Egyptian situation.

    There are a few points I would add, which themselves would perhaps be an excellent basis for a follow up essay.

    First, the original aim of the MB government was to pattern itself on the Turkish AK model. You present a powerful argument why this would never have worked in practice, but nonetheless it was a widely accepted raison d’être, acknowledged by Mr Obama and Mr Morsi both.

    (Aside: I would say the actual pattern for the future is Pakistan, not Turkey.)

    At the time I thought that Morsi would go carefully over years, as Erdogan has done. Instead he went with indecent haste, by purging the top levels of the army (like Ergenekon) and stacking the constitutional convention. The current backlash is reflective of this coup de main.

    An analysis of why the attempt to model on Turkey failed would be very interesting from your perspective.

    I suspect one big driver of the situation is the pressure the MB is getting from the Salafists. They received a large plurality in the 2011 parliamentary election (28%) and have been dogging Morsi’s heels throughout. It seems likely that much of Morsi’s actions have be a mix of impatience (after decades of the MB being stymied) and fear of losing their base to the Salafists if they didn’t move more quickly to an overt Islamist platform.

    The third point is that there have been signs of an increase in piousness in the Army at lower levels in the officer corps, which may have tempered the Army from intervening earlier.

    All this adds up to a need for the MB to try to grasp the opportunity of power quickly, with a hope to consolidate it along the lines of Hamas in Gaza. They may have overestimated their support inside the army, as the Army ultimatum suggests. But if so why has Morsi issued a counter ultimatum? It will be very interesting to see whether his seemingly desperate roll of the dice works or not. I hope for the sake of Egypt that it doesn’t.

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  • Matthew Brotchie

    According to Egypt’s state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, the military has told President Mohamed Morsi that he is no longer head of state. The Egyptian military will suspend the country’s constitution provisionally and give presidential powers to the Chairman of the Supreme Consitutional Court, Adly Mansour, who will also decide when new elections will take place.


  • Anthony

    “The deep state will once again, slowly or not-so-slowly but surely, come under the full direction of the army.” Very prescient and informative – MSM Arab Spring (Egyptian) pundits ought to be reading Adam Garfinkle.

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  • Sam

    Your analysis may be 1/2 correct, but is better than most orientalist. The MB had the chance, Egyptians supported MB based upon MB’s marketing machine. The MB should have triangulated the deep state – hand in hand with other forces-but paranoid MB’s leaders failed. I predict 3rd revolution over next 5-7 yrs based upon SLOW return of the deep state& quieting this generation by including its leaders in the “political machine” and corruptible ways (cooling them off). The deep state is now triangulating the “youth”. I know because I was a “youth” in 70′s, and we were triangulated by Sadat.I have seen the MB & others (GI& J) on the “ground” & worked against them-admiring their discipline but despising their methods & philosophy. Egypt can’t be fixed and will not be fixed. Its best bet was with MB-sad but is true- and they failed miserably. On the ground, we knew the MB will fail; but never SO FAST! Egypt’s problems are incredibly easy to fix since the common man want simple things to live by; Egyptians are not greedy! If the government give its people clean streets and room to breath- most will be happy with their lot in life-going back to the “I” in IBM;we have the “N” added to it as in”Nasiby”=kismet=fate.! The MB can come back brilliantly, if they enumerate its errors & apologize to the Egyptians publicly-taking a political break and watch next govt fail; deleting its stupid Sharia & Islamic Nazism from its mantra & focusing on the “non corruptible” members as its next cadre working to triangulate the deeps state & radical Islamists. Would the MB do so? No; because they are too proud & self destructive living in its own self fulfilling prophecy. I wish we had the same masses in the 70′s! The good people of this generation left Egypt in 70′s-80′s! Not necessarily we were better equipped! not at all-but because the deep state was not as deep.

  • Kareem

    An an Egyptian, My only comment is that you are IBM.

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  • Hal

    There is a basic balance in every society: Consumption has to equal production, plus external subsidies and minus tribute paid to external entities. In the contemporary global economy, does Egypt have the productive capacity to either (1) produce domestically or (2) pay for imports of the food, fuel, and other necessities that would provide for consumption by all Egyptians at (at least) a survival level?

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  • Adam Garfinkle

    I am not an “orientalist”, if by the term you insinuate that anything Edward Said ever said or wrote on this subject was right. It was instead chic defensivist and factually wrong. You know better than I do that the IBM syndrome is real, that the BM guys could not manage their way out of the back of a 7-11. And you are absolutely right to note that Egyptians are not greedy people. As for adding an N to IBM, it’s substantively right, but it messes up the acronym…..