Egypt needs an enemy

Events in Egypt have moved rapidly and it seems now that the Supreme Military Council will take over and run the country, at least until the next election.  While this solution to the crisis may satisfy the protesters for the time being, I do not think it will work.  The reasons are quite simple.

The military group and the protesters have different objectives, which do not agree in the long run -- and likely even in the medium run.  The main problem is that no Egyptian government, no matter who runs it, can really satisfy the economic needs of the protesters as long as Egypt remains a thoroughly socialized state, with 35% of the workforce in the government.  All kinds of price controls and subsidies abound.  I recall, when visiting Egypt some years ago that bread was so cheap that farmers would feed it to animals in preference to feed that was not subsidized.

The military is a privileged group.  They get good salaries and perks, good pensions, and good jobs after they retire.  They are well qualified and the officers are highly educated.  On the other hand, the protesters include a large group of well educated young people who do not have jobs, who need an income and a career, in order to get married and live a decent life. 

The question really arises: Is Egypt beyond repair?  We will soon find out.  Traditionally, whoever runs the country has tried to divert the population from the real internal problems - unemployment and under-employment.  Egypt has to produce 1 million new jobs a year to keep up with population growth, and more than half of its 83 million people try to survive on $2 a day.

Usually, rulers try to ignore internal problems too difficult to solve and point to an outside enemy.  But Egypt has no outside enemies.  No nation would attack Egypt and try to take over.

Therefore, the military is likely to do the same thing as any other Egyptian dictator.  They will invent an outside enemy -- which also justifies a large military budget.  Israel is too small and unimportant.  Besides, they might lose the annual subsidies from the US that provide them with shiny new weapons, airplanes, paid US vacations, and prestige.  They are not likely to pick on Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates.  Sudan and Libya are hardly a credible threat to Egypt.

This leaves only Iran, non-Arabic and Shi'ite, and Egypt's main rival for leadership of the Moslem world.  It is a good target because it would encourage substantial subsidies from both US and Saudi Arabia, and sit well with orthodox Sunni Muslims.  The most immediate manifestation of such a policy would be an intensified crackdown on Hamas, Iran's proxy in the Gaza Strip.

Such a policy had already been underway under Mubarak, with Egypt enforcing a blockade of the Gaza Strip.  It may become more effective now, with stricter control of smuggling of Iranian-supplied arms -- as Egyptian assets in the Sinai are coming under attack from Hamas terrorists and Bedouins, threatening Egypt's vital tourist business.

Prof. S. Fred Singer has traveled widely in the Middle East, writing mainly about oil supplies and oil security.   He authored a monograph on the ‘Price of World Oil.'