There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 20 February 2011

On the Current Troubles: Part 1 Egypt

This was intended to be a blog about travel, not politics, but, like it or not, the observant traveller is confronted by politics at every turn.  I like to think that having been somewhere I have some insight into that place, and the teacher that lives on in me cannot stop himself giving the world the benefit of that insight – regardless of whether the world wants it.


So the inevitable happened and Mubarak has gone. I expected him to hang on longer, but after a spectacularly ill-judged speech, there was little the military could do except ease him out.

Despite the expectations of some members of the press, the ‘Tiananmen Square’ solution was always a non-starter, and for two good reasons.

Firstly, the Chinese army is professional. Joining up is not easy and some resort to bribery - as much as 50 000 Yuan (£5 000) or so I have heard. Even the humblest private regards himself as being part of an elite. The Egyptian army has its professional elements, there is an overlarge officer corps and a preponderance of generals, but the boots on the ground are conscripts. Every Egyptian male has to serve his two years, and bribery is a way of keeping out of the army, not getting in.

Away from the Coast and the Nile Valley
 Egypt is pretty empty

Secondly, Beijing is not China. Beijing may be a mega-city, but its 13 million people represent 1% of the Chinese population, and its influence is balanced by other meg-cities – Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chongqing, hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres distant. Estimates of Cairo’s population vary, but a conservative figure of 8 million would represent 10% of the Egyptian population. Another 5 million live in Alexandria, a three-hour drive away across the densely populated Nile delta. A substantial proportion of Egyptians thus live within easy reach of Cairo. Ordering an inward looking elite, whose members come from far away, to break up a localised insurrection is one thing, persuading conscripts to fire on their own fathers and brothers is another.

The important question is what happens next? At the worst, the army insert their preferred candidate (as they did with Mubarak, and Sadat before him) and confirm him with a fraudulent election (as they did with Mubarak, and Sadat before him). Egypt would then be back to square one, the revolution would have been for nothing and the people might, or might not, have the energy to do it all again. Best case is that the army organises free multi-party elections and Egypt emerges as a secular liberal democracy.

I hope it is the latter, but if I was inclined to gamble (which I’m not) I would put my money on the former, or at best a fudge somewhere between the two. I would hope that western governments would champion the cause of democracy, but discreetly – stridently telling Egyptians what to do would be worse than saying nothing.

Hosni Mubarak apparently believed the revolution was fomented by foreigners, probably the west and/or Israel. The Israelis, having appointed Iran as the regional bogeyman, saw Iranian hands behind this – and every other (to them) unwelcome event in the region. They were both wrong.

Abu Sir, a small town a few kilometres south of Cairo
The apparent difficulty for Israel and America is the Muslim Brotherhood. The name alone is enough to frighten them, but although the Brotherhood may be the best organised opposition party, their electoral strength is untested, and their radicalism varies greatly depending on the spokesman. Some on the American right (Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter to name but two) believe democracy in Egypt should be opposed because Egyptians cannot be trusted to elect the ‘right’ government. Apart from being morally offensive, this approach puts debatable short-term American gain before long-term gain for the whole world. The sensible and moral approach is to encourage democracy, then work with whoever emerges as the choice of the Egyptian people. We owe them that, at the very least.

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