In Sana‘a last summer, a senior Yemeni general told me of his recent meeting with visiting American officials. The general had hoped to make the case for greater U.S. aid, military and civilian, for Yemen. But the Americans kept asking him about events in Egypt.
“They kept saying, ‘What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood? What are the Egyptian military officers telling you about [Mohamed] Morsi?’” the general recalled, shaking his head in frustration. “I told them, ‘We had our own Arab Spring, now we have a democratic government, we have acute poverty, civil wars and al-Qaeda. Can you please stop talking about Egypt and start talking about Yemen?’”
The general said the Americans did stop asking about Egypt, but only for a short while. Then the questions started up again. “They wanted to know if I had been to Cairo, and if I had noticed changes after the overthrow of Mubarak,” he said. “Americans seem to think that Egypt is the most important thing in the Middle East.”
It is pretty important, I said politely.
“No, it was important,” he replied, waving a hand over his shoulder. “But that was a long, long time ago.”
The American political and foreign policy establishment, as well as the media mainstream, tends to view Egypt through the lens of the 1960s and ’70s. Back then, Egypt was the fulcrum of the Arab world, unarguably its most important country. It was the source of the region’s most compelling postcolonial political idea: Nasserism. Cairo was the cultural center of the Arab peoples, the source of great cinema, TV, music, art, literature. It had a vibrant media scene.
Although it lacked the natural resources of a Saudi Arabia or an Iraq, Egypt had, relative to those countries, an abundance of intellectual capital: it was the center for learning, with the region’s best universities, both secular and religious. Its labor force was coveted by the newly wealthy Gulf states.
All that and, crucially from the U.S. point of view, Egypt was a threat to Israel.
Egypt today is none of those things, and for two reasons: the Middle East has changed, and Egypt has not.
Cairo is no longer the region’s cultural heart: Egypt doesn’t produce great art, music or literature. Arab TV audiences are much more likely now to be watching Turkish soap operas, Lebanese music videos and Qatari satellite news channels. Egyptian universities are now laughably bad, and the Gulf states prefer Indian, Pakistani and Filipino labor to Egyptian. Egypt’s media scene is a regional joke.
After decades of mismanagement by corrupt generals and bureaucrats, Egypt is an economic basket case. It has few valuable resources to sell the world, and its mostly impoverished people don’t have the money to buy anything from the world, either. Even the Chinese, who aren’t deterred by political instability or violence, aren’t exactly queuing up to invest in Egypt.
While Egypt has weakened over the past four decades, several other regional players have grown stronger and more ambitious. Some of these — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey — are American allies (much of the time, anyway), which means Egypt’s utility to the U.S. as an interlocutor to the Arab world is greatly diminished. Washington might have valued Egypt’s support for its efforts in Syria, but an Egypt run by brute generals presiding over the slaughter of their own civilians is hardly a credible partner in dealing with Bashar Assad.
As for that other crucial American concern, Egypt is no longer a serious threat to Israel: the balance of military power is entirely lopsided in Israel’s favor. It was remarkable how quickly Morsi, when he was elected President last year, moved to reassure everyone that he would adhere to the peace treaty between the two countries. All the main constituencies in Egypt (Islamists, liberals and the military) know if they went to war with Israel, their country would be reduced to rubble.
Nor is there a great risk that Egypt may endanger Israel by arming — or allowing others to arm — Hamas in Gaza. For one thing, most Egyptians (the Islamists included) fear and distrust the Palestinian militants. For another, Israel has demonstrated repeatedly that it is perfectly capable of choking off Hamas’ supply lines.
Can Egypt reclaim its old place as the fulcrum of the Arab world? An opportunity arose two years ago. The Arab Spring was an import from Tunisia, but it once again made Egypt a laboratory of a new, powerful political idea: post-totalitarian democracy. Egypt’s size meant its democratic experiment would be watched more closely than, say, Libya’s. Alas, as we’ve seen this summer, that experiment has failed. Rather than show the way forward, Egypt is in full retreat. It now falls to Tunisia and Libya to show that the Arab Spring wasn’t simply a replay of the Prague Spring.
As for Egypt, it seems now that its main relevance in regional and global affairs is as a potential source of trouble. Its combination of instability, corruption and ineptitude makes Egypt fertile soil for radicalism and Islamist militancy.
And Washington should treat it as such. It should stop pretending Egypt is an important player in Arab affairs, and pay more attention to countries that are. It should stop giving the generals $1.5 billion a year. That money is better spent on countries where the democratic experiment still has a chance of success. Instead, the U.S. should prepare for the humanitarian crises that will inevitably accompany continued military brutality and economic misery. And it should be alert for the growth of a new al-Qaeda franchise on the Nile.
And if that happens, I know a Yemeni general they can ask what to do about it.