The West must finally see Egypt as it is, not as we would like it to be

The Western world cannot afford an Egypt mired in protracted disorder, but the unpredictability of its neighbourhood excludes the usual treatment


So what, contemplating the carnage in Egypt, does the Western world do now? It is not hard to imagine the scurrying going on in capitals, where presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors and strategists are all far away from their desks. International calamities have a habit of erupting during the holidays of high summer or deep midwinter, making it all the more likely that one ill-judged response will follow another. But how the United States and Europe address a crisis that combines the indiscriminate brutality of Tiananmen Square with the enduring volatility of this neighbourhood demands more careful consideration than there is strictly time for.

Above all, the scale of what has happened must not be underestimated. The military assault on the Muslim Brotherhood’s protest encampments cost, at the latest official assessment, more than 500 lives. Ruthlessness, ineptitude, naivety and an acceptance of martyrdom may have played a part in increasing the death toll. But that is no excuse. This was a ferocious military crackdown, causing casualties all over the country, from Suez and Alexandria in the north, to Aswan in the south. For all the ferocity, though, and the cordons and the curfews, it is not obvious that the army will be able to keep order nationwide. We may be looking at chaos rather than incipient civil war.

And chaos not just anywhere, but in a country of more than 80 million people, a majority of them under 24 with – in terms of paid employment – nothing like enough to do. The most populous country of the region, Egypt links the Arab and African worlds. To the north are Israel, Gaza and Syria – whose combined potential for disruption needs no further explanation. Nor should it be forgotten that Egypt controls the Suez Canal, still the crucial route for East-West shipping. Or that Egypt has long enjoyed huge international sympathy because of its distinct history and identity. The Western world cannot afford an Egypt mired in protracted disorder.

Egypt’s relative proximity and the unpredictability of its neighbourhood exclude the treatment the West meted out to China after Tiananmen Square. Beijing was essentially confined to a diplomatic deep freeze. As always, of course, there was more rhetoric than reality, but China and its leaders could be ostracised because trade relations were nothing like as close as they are now and China was far away and self-contained. Nor, realistically, had there been any serious chance of democracy breaking out in China as a result of the protests. The West was always more spectator than actor in an alien land.

Egypt is different. The US, in particular, has been deeply engaged there since 1979 as part of the peace treaty with Israel. It is an engagement that was to a large extent military and allied to security guarantees – which may explain why President Obama showed such reluctance to switch sides as the popular challenge to Mubarak’s rule mounted and why, when the military ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, the US (and most of its allies) shilly-shallied so disgracefully in calling it a military coup. Not only would a coup have sounded far worse than “the formation of a military-backed government”, it would have obliged the US to suspend military aid – and with it, Obama was clearly persuaded, the last fragments of American leverage. You can understand, if not support, the argument that some leverage is better than none.

Yet the belief that the US, or Europe, has been in a position to exercise much, or even any, leverage in Egypt since the overthrow of Mubarak is largely wishful thinking. It was an illusion, and one that has landed us in the predicament we find ourselves in today.

Among the early mistakes the West made was not to anticipate the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule long before his departure was forced. It was easier to deal with the old ally – as, by the way, it is easier and more convenient to deal with the Soviet-era potentates in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, who are also in the twilight of their years – without paying too much attention to the demographic forces swirling around him. At least Central Asia, unlike Egypt, is not even close to our backyard.

A second mistake was to exaggerate our power to influence, let alone control, events. Oh yes, we courted the young telegenic protesters on Tahrir Square; our NGOs flooded in to teach the basics of (mostly US-style) democracy; we talked the language of constitutions and conventions and ballot boxes, and we lauded Egypt’s growing electoral literacy. We even managed, just about, to avoid the fatal error we made with the Palestinians – to encourage elections, and then reject a result not to our liking. But when President Morsi was deposed by the army, our double standards once again homed into view. A new government, however distasteful, and new elections would give Egypt a second chance to produce a result that we – and our young friends of all those months ago on Tahrir Square – might prefer. No wonder so many governments chose not to call the coup by its proper name. Egyptians, of all persuasions, have every right to question our good faith.

Amid the ruins of the West’s misfired good intentions stands one lone and tragic figure – Mohamed ElBaradei – who, through no fault of his own, epitomises the way in which we have misread today’s Egypt for so long. A distinguished lawyer and diplomat, an accomplished international civil servant who was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his work at the International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei belongs to Egypt’s urbane elite. He was the face of Egypt’s future we hoped for. We saw him as a transitional successor to Mubarak, then as the ideal first president of a democratic Egypt. But the only leadership post he actually obtained – and that not without dispute – was as acting vice-president for international affairs after the coup. It was a clear sop to Western opinion, designed to make the unacceptable just acceptable enough.

ElBaradei lasted just one month, resigning as the army was ordered in to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. How could he not? With him went, or should have gone, any illusions the West still cherished – because Egypt is not a country of urbane ElBaradeis, but a vast, backward country with millions of young and poor, who urgently need training and jobs and some tangible improvement in their daily lives.

It is here, in education and the economy, that the West’s efforts should have been concentrated from the outset. And perhaps, with our illusions about Egypt and its supposedly benevolent military regime now shattered, this is where a new start can be made. But without civic order, or at least order that enjoys broad popular consent, even such basic assistance will be harder. We are damned if we maintain relations with a regime that has slaughtered so many of its own people, but also damned if we don’t. The West needs an Egypt that is calm and secure, an Egypt that settles its internal differences without resort to arms. As of this week, such an Egypt looks very far from reality. But it is an Egypt that most Egyptians – few of whom ever shared the West’s illusions – would also want for themselves.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments