Tag Archives: Middle East

Down the Egyptian Fennec foxhole

Fleeting memory – and perhaps proof that if there are lessons of history, they are never learned – is that there is almost no mention of “Nasserism” or “Pan-Arabism” in the current reporting on Egyptian chaos.

Yet for two decades a young army officer out of nowhere, Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, towered over Egypt, the Arabs – and even the broader Muslim world — allied to the Soviet Union and preaching shortcuts to modernization. Today his politics is scarcely mentioned among the 400 million Arabs much less in the rest of the world. That could only be, what with a third of Egypt’s 90-million under 15, nearly three-fifths under 30, most at best semi-literate – a population that increased at least 25% in the last two decades.

Yet as that motto over the U.S. Archives says, the past is prologue. Nasser’s 1952 revolution and two decades of military misrule contributed to the current tragedy in so many ways. Like successor politicians, even in the Western democracies  – one too close to home — Nasser preached “comprehensive” solutions to the myriad problems of what was once the breadbasket of the Roman empire with its triple-cropping and rich Nile River silt soil. The corruption and incompetence of the pseudo-liberal parliamentary monarchy which preceded him, the first effort at a stable, modern society in one of the world’s oldest civilizations, was so imperfect he said it had to be overthrown by what turned out to be sheer demagoguery.

For as the reality of the depth of Egypt’s problems sank in, Nasser turned to preaching unity among the Arabs – a groundless concept so often promised and failed. Ethnicity, geography, wealth and history – even religious concepts — divide the Arabs at every crisis as is the case just now. But with the adulation of millions, Nasser turned to implacable hatred of the most effective modernizing force in the region, Israel, with disastrous results in three wars.

Simultaneously, in his rush toward Soviet-style socialism, he purged Egypt of its centuries-old ethnic minorities, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Genovese, the Venetians. The Jews had already fled, the wealthier to France, the poorer to Israel. This “middle class” had nourished the caravan trade for centuries and were the factors of its agricultural economy and nascent industrialization.

Moreover, Nasser’s pan-Arabism excluded and threatened Egypt’s indigenous Coptic Christians, quintessentially Egyptian and close to 15% of the population. From Upper Egypt fellahin peasants to Alexandrian and Cairene landlords and entrepreneurs they were disproportionably wealthy, said to control 50% of the country’s riches. Age-old animosities were revived with continuing persecution persisting to this moment. But unlike other indigenous Mideast Christians, perhaps as many as 15 million Egyptian Copts are not just going to pack up, and fade away. Obviously they have played a significant role in turning back the first wave of the Islamic radicals under ousted Pres. Mohamed Morsi and his dissembling Moslem Brotherhood fanatics.

But Nasser’s tortured economy iheritance persists.

It would be hard to exaggerate its current failings, exacerbated, of course, by the instability of Egypt’s version of the Arab Spring. Having long ago descended into the abyss, Cairo has to import 40% of its food. It runs a trade deficit equivalent to an astonishing fifth of its gross national product [GDP]. The government’s credit rating has collapsed. Price controls and subsidies had seduced the population into uneconomic waste of domestic oil and gas moving toward a tenth of the GDP. The official 10% unemployment [25% among the young] is notional. Crony capitalism – including the military – distorts virtually every market. Recourse to the International Monetary Fund’s cash has been held up by its unsavory reputation – whether deserved or not – with the Egyptian polity. But in any case, the IMF still needs a road map for some sort of return of stability.

Through modern times Egypt has been a top destinations for international tourists –  in 2010, 5.5 million came spreading $14 billlion. With growing international travel, that had doubled from a decade earlier. And it was despite an ugly 1997 massacre of 62 foreign tourists at Luxor — the center for expeditions to the Valley of the Kings ruins, a Pharonic history dating as far back as 5,000 years.

One of the tipoffs of the total incompetence — if not its true nature — of the ousted Morsi regime was appointment of a former Islamic terrorist as governor in the region until public outcry immediately drove him out. He was a member of the outlawed Al Gama’a al-Islamiyyaorganizationalleged tohave perpetrated the outrage. Their bloodthirsty assasinations of public officials – including implication in that of Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat – have suggested a tacit alliance with Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda. Although officially renouncing violence, Al Gama was heavily represented in the parliament elected last year. Its one time leader, the blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman who directed the first attack on the New York City Trade Center in 993, is now in a U.S. prison. But he refuses to renounce violence and probably still plays a role in convoluted Egyptian Islamicist politics.

The continued political crisis has wreaked havoc on tourism, of course, And with one in every 12 in the labor force working with visitors, the bonds between reestablishing order and its reputation abroad is essential for any resurrection, even temporarily, of the economy.

Nasser’s death in 1970 and the subsequent break with the Soviet Union by his successor, another military leader Sadat, ushered in reform. Chaperoned by Pres. Jimmy Carter, Sadat made his famous peace visit to Israel. He turned to the U.S. and the West and the Persian Gulf oil ministates for what has been billions of dollars in economic and military aid. – $19 billion alone from Washington, still on the hook for $1.3 billion annually.

The 90s finally brought a serious effort for economic reform, to dismantle Nasser’s legacy. But much of Egyptian industry is still in uneconomic and corrupt government companies in a bloated public sector. Even before the recent political explosion, inflation and unemployment with huge military outlays pushed a growing public debt. Only the three million Egyptians working in other Arab countries and their remittances, the lifeline of the Nile’s irrigation waters, an off and on export of gas to Israel and Jordan, and the relative trickle of tourism – and massive aid, of course — has kept the country afloat. [A nasty additional cloud on the horizon is the threat of riparian countries on the upper reaches of the Nile to void British colonial imposed divisions which benefited Egypt and the Sudan downriver disproportionately.]

It would be a fool’s errand to predict what comes next. The long descent of Indonesia’s once highly efficient plantation-colonial economy under the demagogic Soekarno and the collapse of Burma’s pre-war colonial agricultural exports under the rule of the mad Ne Win and his successors proved there is no bottom in pre-industrial societies. Southeast Asia is not Egypt, of course, although the once common relatively easy life of the tropics suggests comparisons.

Egypt’s long history of synthesizing totally different intellectual currents and absorbing economic abuse like a sponge give some faint hope. But, for the moment, the future could not seem bleaker.


Americans abroad — in the Mideast

Behind the Desert Storm

Pavel Stroilov

Price World Publishing, LLC

ISBN: 978-1932549676

$19.95, Publication date Aug.1, 2011

One cannot read this book without recalling that wonderful aphorism of Otto von Bismarck: “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.” Almost on every page is an illustration of the blundering American policymakers blabbing their way through conversations in the jungle of Mideast problems with their native interlocutors, seemingly oblivious to realities demonstrated for all to see all around them. In the short term, of course, Washington did luck out with the immediate collapse of the Sadam Hussein tyranny in The First Gulf War.

For those of us – not Orientalists but the ordinary variety of human beings – who try to follow events in the region, there are not that many totally surprising moments here. Who did not know the perfidy of Washington’s Arab allies? We knew that not only Saudi Arabia but the so-called Bathist Arab Socialist regime in Damascus joined the most extensive alliance in history for their own narrow interests – not for the love of liberty for the relatively tiny sheikhdowndom [cq] of Kuwait which had been attacked and bested quickly by Sadam. Contrary to Washington’s perennial wishful thinking – aided and abetted by the usual Sovietologist suspects in the academy who have never called a shot right yet — most of us sensed, too, that Mikhail Gorbachev was not a “reformer” but another Communist apparatchik trying to save what was left of the system on the eve of the Soviet implosion. [In all transparency, this writer whipped out a book on that hypothesis, Living Off the West: Gorbachev’s Secret Agenda and Why It Will Fail {Nov 1990}, never anticipating Gorbie would blow it so quickly!] Nor did many of us underestimate the scheming, venal, anti-Americanism of Francois Mitterand – perhaps the only politician in European history to reverse the peregrination of that old French adage, “Heartless if not a socialist at 20, headless if a socialist at 40”.

But what a young Russian “nerd”, a student/programmer who has stolen one of the most fascinating archives in recent diplomatic history, has given us is documentation for all those old assumptions – and much more. This observer, for example, never had any doubts about Jimmy Baker’s fierce anti-Israel monomania verging on anti-semitism. But I had always assumed we were dealing with a hard-nosed, clever by half as the British would say, cynical manipulator who knew from where the world’s oil supply was coming. Instead, what is revealed in these pages, is a total amateur, buying into every trap Moscow, Paris, Baghdad and London, can lay for him, sometimes to be saved, by of all people, Brent Scowcroft, a fellow traveler in most of his prejudices.

Washington finally lucks out, Bismarckian fashion, apparently, mostly because having – as Joe Alsop used to say – marched up the hill with flags flying, drums rolling and trumpets flaring, pulling together the most sophisticated fighting machine the world has ever seen [as noted repeatedly by the Chinese Communists], there was nothing to do but use it to break Sadam.

Stroilov lays all this out with several footnotes and documents text on every page. We are told that as a student he worked on papers Gorbachev was withdrawing from state, KGB and other Soviet files. Gorbachev, who comes through these pages, too, as a pigmy who never got through Machiavelli 101, apparently intended to use them to prove that he was a martyred political genius, defeated by the likes of that ruffiian and drunk Boris Yeltsin and the evil intent of the U.S. But, Stroilov says, Gorbie decided after a few leaks that there should be no further releases – perhaps sensing they would prove the opposite.

Meanwhile, Stroilov says, under the sponsorship of the noted dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, and the former KGB operator, Alexander Litvinenko whom Russian émigré circles believe Vladimir Putin had murdered in London with radioisotopes, he smuggled the whole lot out of Russia. If –and some intelligence mavim in Washington are prepared to to believe his story, his bonafides, and the integrity of his 50,000 documents — he is going to tell what really happened in the waning days of the Soviet empire, there should be much, much more to come as we saw in a recent Der Spiegel lifting germane German material

Regrettably, the book, itself, is less than its parts, mainly because Stroilov – and one feels for him – cannot contain his anger, his contempt and his sarcasm for most of the leading characters, not least the Soviet players. The narrative leaves out too much for those of us who are not Sovietologists, but pounds too many obvious points too many times too heavily. The epilogue – a cri de coeur for Western democrats not to repeat the follies of Iraq, Act I and II, but to support the intent of “the Arab Spring” – is no less naïve than the players he describes. He, like the rest of us, has no hard solutions for the intractable problems of Arab/Muslim society, not least a rambunctious youth bulge seeking jobs as much as new free societies, perhaps too ready to accept the totalitarian temptation of Islamic fundamentalism.

— Sol W Sanders

A version of this book review appeared in The Washington Times, Friday, Sept. 9, 2011

That would make a clean breast of it!


Ye Olde Crabb sez:

Agents for Britain’s MI5 intelligence service have discovered that Muslim doctors trained at some of Britain’s leading teaching hospitals have returned to their own countries to fit surgical implants filled with explosives, according to a report from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.

Arab renaissance?

Arab Rennaisance?

The West is riding a wave of optimism, despite the unresolved bloody mess in Libya, prophesying a resurgent Arab/Muslim world. Led by cheerleading media – including such unexpected participants as Fox News – there’s lyrical reporting of anti-authoritarian signboards printed in English for Western audiences.

The enthusiasm may be misplaced.

For while the Arabs’ demography dictates the restlessness of a growing youth cohort, these vast numbers of young people are as much a challenge as they are an engine for modernity. They need jobs in a new and rapidly growing economy to move out of a thousand years of cultural stagnation. Virtually leaderless except for occasional Muslim fanatics, hopefully still on the sidelines, there are few concrete ideas about how to produce them.

Too often frustrated anti-regime spokesmen fall back on old lame excuses – colonialism, the usual scapegoat. European exploitation was real, of course. But so was its introduction of modernity. Years ago a famous, charming Communist Pakistani Urdu poet friend, in a tour of Lahore, pointed out to me how, like Calcutta, the city had been up to a certain point “typically” Edwardian. With his Marxist bent, his explanation for why it froze [we were speaking in the 1960s] was because European exploitation “didn’t pay any more”.

However valid that explanation, the truth is there is little fundamental about the rebels’ so-called current reform program. Their calls for eliminating corruption and inefficiency are unassailable. But efforts to remold economic facts of life in impoverished Muslim societies flies in the face of the continuing traditional religiously inspired cultural fatalism. Unfortunately, the Islamic orthodox have a virtual monopoly on moral regeneration. But their interpretation of Islam excludes individualism which is at the heart of modern freedom and democratic governance – and economic development.

Applying so-called sharia concepts – Islamic law – to the economy has been catastrophic. Quietly, Western and even indigenous banks which pandered in attempting to replace conventional banking with “Muslim concepts”, quietly are dumping them because they simply did not work. Dubai is an example: getting out of entanglements of a collapsed real estate bubble is virtually impossible despite neighboring oil despots coming to the rescue because purported Muslim “rules of the road” eschewed Western legal concepts of equity and interest. Malaysia, which lucked out in the 1997 East Asia Financial Crisis when it rejected the International Monetary Fund’s proffered bitter medicine, now trumpets Islamic capitalism. But it is built on the backs of its minority ethnic Chinese and Indians who follow a pragmatic work ethic paying “rents” to their Malay overlords.

It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and even racism discussing these issues. Only a few years ago some were bantering around the phrase “Hindu rate of growth” to describe Indian stagnation. Then along came a determined, charismatic, non-expert prime minister – unfortunately short-lived — who shucked off Soviet planning and threatened the babu [clerk] government culture. And the economy took off chasing the Chinese. Alas! under the current prime minister, who has falsely been given credit, New Delhi sinks back into the old morass.

True enough, in virtually all great religious literatures, old fiery exhortations exist unacceptable alongside professed contemporary universal ethical standards. But Europe’s long cultural wars over “that which is Caesar’s” long ago threw off most primitive calls for tribal vengeance now still prolific in Muslim cultures.

In searching to avoid a dangerous confrontation between large parts of the civilized world, Western public intellectuals look for commonality. It may not exist. Presenting Islam as just another Abrahamic religion [with Christianity and Judaism] obfuscates important differences. Often Western politicians who hope to bridge the gap with Islam with rhetoric are simply compounding the problem. The latest is a leftwing Swedish government coalition’s decision to provide massive” humanitarian” assistance to illegal immigrants who have turned to ethnic and classwarfare in Scandinavia.

Were it not difficult enough, through happenstance in underpopulated parts of the Arab/Muslim world fossil fuels resources critical to the world economy provide astronomical “rents”. You can count on the feudal elites in these countries always to misuse them. Just now oil-rich members of the Persian Gulf community are attempting to stem ethnic and civil violence in their neighbors, Oman and Bahrain, by setting up a $10 billion “Marshal Plan” to buy off the locals. Using that nomenclature shows utter lack of understanding of post-World War II Europe where refinancing the world’s most important manufacturing machine was the order of the day. This announcement follows a recent across the board increased stipend for Saudi Arabia’s potentially explosive natives [particularly its Shia minority which sits on most of its current producing oil].

These transfers – and one has to ask how much actually will reached its intended target given the levels of corruption — will not solve basic problems. These countries have made little progress establishing economies parallel to their oil wealth. They have imported South Asian slave labor to keep the petroleum boom going at full blast. But there has been no integration, and, in fact, migrants are often so shabbily treated as to further endanger artificial states.

That Arab spring may be long in coming for it awaits an Islamic reformation.