Monday, 29 July 2013

The Egyptian Coup : Causes and Consequences

The Egyptian military coup of July 3 was a turning point in the history of the Arab revolts. However, the 'Arab Spring' of 2011 was, to use AJP Taylor's phrase' on Germany in 1848, more generally the point where Arab history 'reached its turning point and failed to turn'.

The Egyptian 'deep state' that developed under post colonial dictatorships and the dominance of the army was not really affected by the Egyptian uprising. It was a 'people power' demonstration; there was never a revolution against the deep state and so no actual revolution as in Iran in 1979.

Essentially, what has happened is that the old elites allowed Mubarak to fall in order to appease popular opinion and to try to introduce a measure of controlled democratic representation. That was in continuity with rather more limited experiments in that direction in the 1990s and 2000s.

Set against the background of the disintegrating economy and food crisis, one brought about by a lethal combination of longer term climate changes and demographic pressures, the Egyptian army was able to protect the deep state by allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take responsibility for the worsening chaos.

A trap was set for the Muslim Brotherhood in having the Supreme Court declare electoral regularities in their seats as a pretext to dissolve the Egyptian Parliament in June 2012.  That was two weeks before an election between a Mubarak era PM and Morsi to vote president who would be the only democratic representative.

That benefited the deep state as it meant that either an old regime appointee would be elected or else a leader without experience who would prove too weak to challenge vested interests. Morsi approved IMF austerity measures and the torture and beatings in Egyptian prisons were not stopped. Nothing changed.

Army grandees such as General Sisi have taken a gamble on a coup because there was mass popular support to be rid of Morsi from those who believed his presidency was leading towards Egypt becoming ungovernable and descending into further economic chaos.

In addition, Salafi jihadists were causing havoc in North Sinai along with Bedouins. The Muslim Brotherhood were portrayed as a danger to Egypt's 'stability' by beings allegedly indulgent towards Islamist terrorists. That has seemed to threaten the basis of the settlement agreed in 1979 between Egypt and Israel.

General Sisi also knew he could execute a coup because the US would be hardly likely to withdraw the $1.3bn it provides to the Egyptian army to provide 'stability' and protect its geostrategic interests. These include preserving peace on the Israeli borders, oil and gas pipelines against attack and the Suez Canal.

The obvious flaw in this plan is that the coup is likely to ensure that Islamist radicals are more likely to resort to terrorism because they can be sure that more alienated and unemployed young men will see the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a sign that only armed resistance can remove the corrupt elites.

If Egypt descended into chaos, it is likely that global jihadists could find a foothold just as they have in Syria. Arms are awash in neighbouring Libya and many jihadists went from Libya to fight in Syria and could also enter the fray in Egypt. This would pose severe threats to world peace.

Egypt is the largest and most influential Arab nation and its collapse would trigger off collapse elsewhere. Yet the move towards a democratic transition in Egypt is bound to be stalled by the coup because it is impossible to see when elections could be held in conditions of anarchy and violence on the streets. 

Events in Egypt may well now spill beyond a turning point at which the course of history did not turn. It , and the entire Middle East, could be heading beyond the point of no return towards violence and civil war which will shake the foundations of the entire global order.


  1. When it comes to Muslim countries' coups or war, I have noticed a few things:
    1. such countries have cool resources (mostly oil like Libya, Iran; Thorium in Afghanistan etc.)
    2. such countries have leaderships that oppose the western powers
    3. coups or wars happen on the pretext on bringing peace or economic prosperity or something to some good effect.

    When it comes to Egypt, I am clueless as to what western interests are.

    Also, what or who are the Old Elites that you refer to in your third paragraph?

  2. The old elites are those in the judiciary and army who benefited from Mubarak's dictatorship and are part of the 'deep state'. This is why there was no revolution in Egypt. There was no overturning of the inherited structures of the old regime which was just decapitated.

    The West has an interest primarily in stability, ensuring the security of the Sinai Peninsula which lies next to Israel, the Gaza Strip and Saudi Arabia. The Suez Canal is not only an important route for oil tankers but also for the US navy on their way to the Middle East and the Gulf region.

    Egypt has oil but only for domestic consumption. It is not vital for the global economies.

    1. Thanks Karl.

      I had forgotten about the Suez Canal. Funny about the military and the judiciary, though.

  3. With regards shale gas and the fracking in the US you mentioned, the Suez Canal is important. Juan Cole writes,

    "..those businessmen who want to export fracked natural gas from the US to, e.g. India, need it to go through the Suez Canal. If the canal were closed by political instability or the pipelines were blown up by guerrillas, the impact on energy and fuel prices in the United States would not be trivial".