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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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Understandably, some U.S. policy-makers want to wash their hands of Egypt. The White House, after Obama leased a place on the right side of history by demanding that Mubarak step down, has yet to tailor a policy suited to the changed circumstances. Egypt is no longer a pillar of regional stability but must itself be stabilized. Sen. Rand Paul wants to ban sales of advanced weapons—tanks, F-16s, etc.—to a country whose rulers allowed a mob to overrun the U.S. embassy and threaten our diplomats in September. Sen. James Inhofe just wants to suspend sales of those arms, but is perhaps the frankest in his appraisal of Egypt’s president. “Morsi’s an enemy,” Inhofe said during secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings. Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has a point.

Since the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978, Egypt has been one of the cornerstones of the U.S. position in the Middle East. By lavishing arms, money, and political and diplomatic prestige on the largest and most influential of Arab states, Washington showed what prizes were in store for any Arab power that chose to make peace with Israel. Conversely, massive American airlifts to Israel during the 1973 war had shown what any Arab regime could expect if it chose to make war on the Jewish state.

Morsi threatens to undo this arrangement. Anti-Semitic remarks of his that have recently come to light, calling Jews the “sons of apes and pigs,” lend weight to the concern that the Egyptian government is looking for a way out of the peace treaty. In the aftermath of Israel’s operations in Gaza in November that degraded Hamas’s arsenal and decimated its leadership, the White House billed Morsi as a peacemaker, but that increasingly looks like wishful thinking. If Morsi doesn’t do more to shut down the smuggling tunnels from Egypt, Israel will soon be back in Gaza. 

Moreover, it’s not clear that the second half of Inhofe’s assessment—Egypt’s “military is our friend”—is accurate, or that it matters. Last week, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defense minister, spoke with outgoing secretary of defense Leon Panetta and affirmed Egypt’s commitment to the 1978 treaty. However, whether Egypt will adhere to the accord is subject to the same winds of fortune that have buffeted virtually every political decision Cairo has taken in the last two years. Sisi recently noted that “the struggle between political forces .  .  . may lead to the collapse of the state,” a statement some have read as a warning to Morsi: If the government cannot ensure stability the military will take over. But the last two years have shown that the military does not want to run Egypt and may be incapable of it. Even worse, a coup might leave the army split, like the rest of Egyptian society, and fighting itself.

Indeed, pitting the army and Morsi against each other would widen yet another fissure in a country that has long been at war with itself. Muslims against Christians. The regime and its security services against its own people. Urban against rural. Secularists against Islamists. Muslim Brotherhood against Salafists. It is hardly any wonder that the country’s first elected president evinced the same anti-Semitic sentiments that poison almost all of Egyptian society. Egyptians don’t like Jews, and they don’t much like each other either. Anti-Semitism has therefore functioned something like an escape valve, and blaming Israel, and/or the United States, for everything wrong with Egypt was the most practical way to keep Egyptians from each other’s throats.

The immediate cause of the recent violence is a court decision in January against the supporters of a soccer club. Last year, the fans of the Port Said team ambushed the fans of a Cairo team, Al Ahly, at a game in Port Said, killing 74. The Ahly supporters claimed that security forces were in on the plot, seeking revenge against them for their role in the revolution and their violent clashes with the police. (The Ahly supporters also played a large part in storming the Israeli embassy in 2011.) When the court handed out 21 death sentences to the 73 accused, including police officers, riots ensued, leaving 39 dead. The violence spread to nearby cities, like Suez, where 9 were killed, as well as Ismailia, which saw another fatality. 

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