The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Conrad Black Headshot

Egypt, You've Seen This Movie Before and it Doesn't Turn Out Well

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

It may be time for an updated reality check on the long-running Arab Spring. In terms of there actually being any springtime for democracy or anything like it, the only seriously good news is the election in Libya, where the liberal secularists defeated the Islamists, by a margin of about two to one.

In Tunisia, where it all began, a moderate Islamist regime seems to be making a go of it, though it remains a contestatious atmosphere. Yemen is a more thoroughly failed state than ever, with Al Quaeda and similarly energetic movements setting up terrorist shop with the hyperactive determination of Detroit squatters.

In strategic terms, from a general western perspective, we seem to be on the verge of the end of the appalling Syrian despotism, and more importantly, its patronization of Hezbollah's terrorist wing in south Lebanon, and of the perpetual Hamas assault on Israel from Gaza.

Balancing this, despite the Homeric efforts at levitation of altruistic hopefulness of the New York Times, and even the Wall Street Journal, is the steady descent of Egypt toward de facto abrogation of the Israeli peace treaty, which has been by far the greatest step forward, on what has so far been the very short trail of the Middle East peace process.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981, and which the Times continues to assure us, not least confidently through foreign affairs writer Tom Friedman, who has an unbroken record of mispredicting everything within 1,000 miles of Jerusalem for decades, is a progressive and moderate organization, has performed a slick coup d'etat on the military in Egypt, ending 60 years of military rule. In the abstract, this must be seen, if not as positive, at least as inevitable.

There could be no stability in Egypt, or in relations with Egypt, if public opinion was permanently stifled and an unpopular military government, incapable of producing real economic growth, was riveted on the back of the proliferating masses of Egypt. At some point, we were always going to have to deal with the Brotherhood. The smooth professionalism with which it switched from the promise to govern through the legislature and allow others to occupy the presidency, to foil the attempt of the army to emasculate the elected leadership, then elected its own president and then fired the military high command, reassures us that the Brotherhood at least knows what it is doing, malign and antagonistic to the West and to liberal democracy though it is, despite the Times's imperishable optimism in bad causes.

Even the normally sober Wall Street Journal represented the new Egyptian army commander, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, as a reasonable and modern professional soldier. In fact, he is just as political as Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak were, but is a long-time stalwart of the Muslim Brotherhood. As the outstanding commentator Andrew McCarthy remarked last week, the elevation of el-Sissi is going to push Polyanna American commentators from their rather tired clichés about how $45 billion of U.S. military assistance to Egypt in the last 30 years has certainly cemented Egyptian military goodwill to the West, to the ramparts the Times has already been rampant upon, that the Brotherhood in power will prove quite tractable.

This is all bunk -- the Egyptians will, to borrow a phrase from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, "astonish the world by their ingratitude" to the Americans, and the Brotherhood is a thoroughly primitive and retrograde organization. However, Egypt can't go to war with Israel without its army, and the Egyptian army, no matter how belligerent its new commander may be, does not want to go toe to toe with the IDF. Ransacking the Israeli embassy with the mobs looking on is good fun; moving anti-missile defenses and tanks into Sinai, contrary to the peace agreement with Israel, is a good promenade, but throwing the gloves down and mixing it up with the Israelis would be an insane and catastrophic error.

When Sadat crossed the Suez Canal in 1973, he was doing the necessary to salvage Egyptian honour so he could negotiate peace from a respectable position. The Great Powers were encouraging what was a disposition to compromise by both countries. If Egypt provoked hostilities again, it would do so unilaterally, as Syria would certainly be in no position to assist, and Jordan would not touch it, as it unwisely did in 1967. Egypt would forfeit the goodwill of the sane world which looked to it to honour its Camp David commitments and behave with moderation. And in the 39 years since the Yom Kippur War, Egypt has steadily lost its preeminence in the Arab world, while Israel has racked up remarkable economic growth and now has a higher standard of living than about a third of the countries of the European Union, (and is about to be self-sufficient in oil and gas).

A rematch now would not only be a mano-a-mano fought by Egypt with sullen and reluctant forces, defeat would mean the complete disappearance of that country as a contestant for Arab leadership and could deliver the Suez Canal to Israel, with very little international pressure on it to withdraw, pressures to which Israel acceded in 1956 and at Camp David in 1978.

There will be no stability in Egypt until it has a government that knows how to encourage low cost manufacturing for export, as successful developing countries from South Korea to China to Poland to the Philippines have been/are doing. If Egypt now finally grasps this point, prosperity will follow and the Muslim Brotherhood will moderate; if it does not, its leaders will be wheeled into courts on stretchers on trial for their lives, as Mubarak was, or assassinated as Sadat was.

I have no standing to impute motives to President Obama, but supporting the bipartisan Enhanced Cooperation Act with Israel and sending that country the largest bombs and enhanced mid-flight refuelling capacity, and allowing defense Secretary Panetta to say in Israel that it was up to Israel to determine what measures its national security required, may be taken as a pre-Ryan election insurance policy. If the Republicans succeed in turning the election into a referendum on serious issues, especially the federal budget deficit and entitlement reform, and resist the ear-splitting whines that the Ryan platform is a drop-dead order to Medicare recipients, spurring the Israeli air force into the skies of Iran in October might be the only life preserver left to the administration. It is distasteful to write in such terms, but the Chicago political boiler room stoked up by the 80-year incumbency of the Cook County Democrats understands no other language, and Barack Obama is its current valedictorian.

In summary, the probabilities are that Egypt will posture noisily but stop short of hostilities with Israel, and either take to the road of economic development or endure yet another failed regime in over 2,000 years of Egyptian decay, since Julius Caesar ravished Cleopatra (or vice versa). Syria will disembark the Assads, shorn now of the accolades of Mrs. Clinton and Vogue Magazine and Barbara Walters; Hezbollah and Hamas will lose the ability to discommode Israel with the through-put from the Iran-Syria pipeline; and Iran will not make it all the way into the nuclear club with Pakistan and North Korea. The Arab Spring will thus be fruitful, but for all the wrong reasons. The militant Islamists, having sown, shall reap, and Israel and the moderate Muslims, led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will bring in the harvest.