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Egypt Against Itself

A society on the edge of chaos.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By LEE SMITH
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This week marks the second anniversary of the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Two years after the refrain “the people want to topple the regime” filled Tahrir Square, it is now Egypt itself that is toppling. Street violence has pitted various groups against each other—anarchists against Islamists, policemen against protesters, men against women—and has left scores dead throughout the country.

This governing thing—it’s harder than we thought, sir.

This governing thing—it’s harder than we thought, sir.


The economy is hemorrhaging reserves and incapable of securing foreign investment, while Egypt’s currency tumbles to record lows. The international community, captivated two years ago by the revolution, has little confidence that Egypt’s new rulers can make peace between the country’s feuding factions. If the conventional wisdom among Western policymakers holds that Egypt is too big to be allowed to fail, the stark reality is that by many measures it is already failing.

A $4.8 billion IMF loan has been put on hold pending President Mohamed Morsi’s stabilizing the political situation. The catch is that the loan requires a host of reforms, like slashing subsidies for fuel and household staples, that will cause yet more suffering across a wide swath of Egyptian society, most likely bringing further instability. Much of Egypt’s technocratic class is in exile or in jail, charged, often spuriously, with corruption under the old regime. Any of the liberal reform measures that might actually help set Egypt back on its feet are associated with precisely those figures that the revolution sought to punish.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to extend Egypt a line of credit last week during his visit to Cairo, the first by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution. However, Iran’s currency has taken an even steeper plunge than Egypt’s. Under heavy U.S. and EU sanctions, Tehran needs cheap agricultural imports to keep food prices down and unrest at bay, but Egypt doesn’t even feed itself.

During his tour of Cairo, Ahmadinejad was accosted by a Sunni Islamist who rapped him on the head with his shoe in a piece of Middle Eastern political theater that illuminates the key differences between Egypt and Iran. To be sure, the ruling regimes of the two countries share an abiding hatred of Israel, but the more important issue for both right now is the civil war in Syria, where Tehran needs to prop up Bashar al-Assad and Cairo is sickened by his regime, which has targeted tens of thousands of fellow Sunnis for death. Moreover, Iran has put Morsi in an awkward position by continuing to send arms to Hamas through the Sinai. As much as Morsi may want to join Hamas’s war against Israel, he can’t lest he forfeit American and European backing. There is no alternative superpower for Cairo to turn to. Inasmuch as Morsi is tied to Washington’s apronstrings, Iran’s active support of Hamas only highlights his impotence.

The good news regarding Egypt is brief, but noteworthy: Those forecasts auguring from the entrails of Mubarak’s demise the birth of a universal Muslim Brotherhood-run caliphate stretching from North Africa to the Persian Gulf were off by a very wide mark. The Islamist organization, which has been building its political base and waiting in the shadows to take power since its 1928 founding, turns out to be incapable even of governing Egypt.

Contrary to the reading of many Western academics, the Brotherhood did not win the presidency because of its long history of grassroots work, its social activism, or its political acumen and organization. Rather it came to rule Egypt simply because everyone else—from the secularists and liberals who kicked off the revolution to the military—was that much more incompetent. The fearful notion, still held by many in the West, that the Brotherhood plots to own the hearts and minds of the world’s billion-plus Muslims comports not with reality but only with the Brotherhood’s preening and now patently absurd self-image. Under Morsi’s stewardship, the Muslim Brotherhood model has been shown to produce poverty, hunger, instability, and violent internal conflict. Who among the umma would seek to unify under such a banner?

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