Is Egypt Irrelevant?

Does interest in Egypt make the same sense it did 30 years ago?

US Egyptian Flags

If our strategy with respect to Egypt over the last 30 years has been to allow the country to sink into irrelevancy, sinking under its own corruption, mismanagement, and intrinsic limitations, it’s working. That’s the message Time editor Bobby Ghosh conveys in a recent article:

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.

Sadly, U. S. policy does not adapt to changing times gracefully. It’s not that it’s conservative; it’s that it’s status quo-ist. We do things because we’ve done them. Supporting a repressive military regime in Egypt might have made sense 30 years ago. Does it make the same sense now?

If there’s one thing that should have been impressed on us by the events of the last several months in Egypt, it is that we have very little to gain from supporting either Egypt’s military or the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberal democrats have very little influence on Egyptian politics. Most Egyptians are quite conservative and the choice is between the authoritarian kleptocracy of the Egyptian military and the incompetent and repressive Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood.

What do we have to lose by not casting our lot with either of those sides?

FILED UNDER: Middle East, , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. John Peabody says:

    The canal is still there. Very important to Europe, perhaps less so for the US. They also readily provide flyover routes to the middle east. This is not to say that aid could be reduced.

  2. Tony W says:

    What do we have to lose by not casting our lot with either of those sides?

    This is probably more about domestic politics than foreign policy. Many politicians, particularly on the right, view America’s first duty as protection of Israel. After that we can lower taxes, fix our potholes and feed our poor kids (in that order).

  3. DC Loser says:

    Not from the Israeli and AIPAC perspective.

  4. Todd says:

    Suez Canal

    … so I would say no, not irrelevant.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Egypt’s primary sources of foreign exchange are tourism and the canal. Tourism is languishing for pretty obvious reasons and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Does anybody really think that either side will close the canal or use it as a bargaining chip? I don’t.

    Do our actions have any influence whatever on what Egypt does with the canal? I think that whoever governs Egypt will do what they do for their own reasons and what we do has little or nothing to do with it.

  6. Andre Kenji says:

    To me, the fact that the Egypt has one of the largest Army in the Arab World is enough to say that the country is not relevant. The dependence that the country has from the Suez Canal and from Tourism makes them more, not less relevant.

  7. stonetools says:

    Does anybody really think that either side will close the canal or use it as a bargaining chip? I don’t.

    Internal turmoil and civil war in Egypt can close the Canal just as much as any government edict. Also too, Israel. Like it or not, the security of Israel is an important part of US foreign policy, and that will remain so for as long as there are tens of millions of evangelicals in the US that view Israel as The Holy Land.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    Let’s see:

    (1) Geopolitical importance? location, location, location {{{check}}}
    (2) Non-trivial geographical factors? population 84M people, and one of largest countries in the world {{{check}}}
    (3) Irrelevant? {{{un-check}}}

  9. michael reynolds says:

    1) The Egyptian military will have limited resources. It can either chase down terrorists throwing mortar shells and rockets from the Sinai into Israel, or it can do something else with its time.

    2) Lacking US money the military will go sponsor-shopping. Russia? China?

    3) In an effort to convince the US of a need to pay off the generals, the military could turn a blind eye to anti-American terrorist groups. Yemen isn’t the only country with a lot of open spaces.

    Not great reasons, but not entirely irrelevant, either.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    By the way, this is interesting: CIA admits role in planning coup against Mossadegh.

  11. JohnMcC says:

    As so often here at OTB, I find the Original Post sent me on a fascinating trip through the google world. I recall from my ‘Survey’ course on the MidEast (more than 45yr ago! Where did they go?) that Egypt was the fulcrum of the region. It had the largest population, a cultural leadership based on traditional universities and the greatest access to the West because of the SuezCanal and how it had been wrapped in European history ever since Napoleon. It was the Arab nation that most embodied Arab claims to the MidEast when the (Turkish, of course) Ottomans were overthrown and wiped clean from history.

    So the question of ‘Is Egypt Irrelevant’ was interesting.

    I see that Egypt is by far the most populace; more than twice the population of the next country.
    I see that the GCC states have spent a heck of a lot building Universities and have whatever prestige that conveys. Egypts two sources of revenue are the canal and tourism — so they must be up against it now; making the Saudi promise of funding significant.

    They’re still a ‘developing’ or ‘3d world’ country with average annual income < $5,000. Their newspapers are no longer the standard of 'news' in the Arab-speaking world. Military dictatorship seems to have done them little good.

    But there is a 2d and unspoken question in the title to the Original Post: If Egypt is irrelevant then which Arab nation is relevant?

    And here I think is the problem for anyone who wishes to wash our hands of this ugly mess. The 2d most populated Arab country is Algeria. They don't supplant Egypt as the signal MidEast nation. Some of the others of significance are Iraq and Syria. 'Nuff said about that.

    The GCC nations are loaded with money. But 'relevance' is hard to buy.

    So I guess I'd say that Egypt isn't what we thought it was (or would become) back during the cold war. But if the Arab-speaking part of the planet is meaningful, then Egypt is 'relevant'.

    And as always, thank you for the stimulous to learn something new.

  12. Dave Schuler says:


    That’s a great response. Thanks for confronting some of the actual issues.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Thanks, Michael. As you know my view is that Mossadegh was overthrown by a putsch of Iranian military officers, aided by the British and, secondarily, the United States. Was the United States involved? Sure. Did the U. S. overthrow Mossadegh? That’s far too simplistic and too influenced by Kermit Roosevelt’s resume padding.

    As with the Wilber document release back in 2000 I don’t see much in the new revelations that contradict that.

  14. James Joyner says:

    For reasons outlined by @JohnMcC and @michael reynolds, Egypt remains relevant and arguably the most relevant Arab state. And, to answer your reverse question in the follow-up post, the United States remains the most important external actor for Egypt. But those things can simultaneously be true and your conclusion right: There’s relatively little we can do to control Egypt’s fate and very little profit in being seen to be backing either the military thugogracy or the Muslim Brotherhood.

    We can counsel moderation, reconciliation, and the tenets of democracy. We can nudge them along towards those ends. But domestic interests will trump all of that for the foreseeable future.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: What you said – ditto.

  16. JohnMcC says:

    Just finished reading the current Atlantic website’s article ‘How Resource Shortages Sparked Egypt’s Month’s Long Crisis’. The best backgrounder on the present crisis I’ve found. It’s surprising how often the old ‘economic determinist’ hound is useful on a hunt.

  17. lounsbury says:

    Except said article is rather defective in its analysis of the economic issues (illustratively its comments on Ag and food production blaming “international financial institutions” and rather queerly if typically for Egyptian elite comment, skipping the massive issues of salinisation of soil and water logging driving reduced productivity – never mind ever smaller land holdings driven by runaway rural population growth.)

  18. JohnMcC says:

    @lounsbury: You are correct and thank you. That’s the sort of deeper thinking that is necessary to understand this sad phenomenon.