The Geopolitics of Egypt: From Eternal Stability to Turmoil Editor’s Note

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The Geopolitics of Egypt: From Eternal Stability to Turmoil

Editor’s Note: This is the 17th in a series of monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs.

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The greatest misunderstanding about Egypt is the common belief that it is a large country. It does occupy more than 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) — twice the size of France — but most of its territory is wasteland. In fact, slightly less than 35,000 of those 1 million square kilometers are actually inhabited, a land area roughly the size of the U.S. state of Maryland or the European country of Belgium. This tiny portion of massive Egypt — from the Aswan High Dam to the Mediterranean shore — is the Egyptian core and home to 99 percent of Egypt’s population of 83 million.

Those 35,000 square kilometers, however, are not condensed into a convenient, easy-to-manage, Belgium-shaped chunk. Instead, they are stretched thin, clinging to the banks of the Nile River in a strip that is almost always less than 30 kilometers wide. Only at the northern delta (the Nile flows from south to north) does this zone of habitation finally widen and fan out into the Mediterranean. Cairo, the modern-day capital, sits at the point where the river transforms into the delta. Alexandria, Egypt’s premier port and opening to the world since the third century B.C., sits near the western edge of the alluvial fan.

Defining Characteristics

The Nile is hardly the perfect river. While its annual flow cycle is reliable — so reliable that the rare instances of drought are quite literally Biblical events — the river is not commercially navigable. On its upper course, water hazards — called cataracts — block navigation by all but the smallest vessels. On its lower course within the delta, the river splits — naturally as well as due to the hand of man — into a smattering of much smaller and shallower distributaries that bar maritime traffic by all but the smallest boats. The only maritime experience Egypt has in any era is on the river’s midcourse between Cairo and Aswan, where larger boats can be used. However, since few trees can grow in Egypt’s climate, there have never been very many boats even on this stretch of the Nile, so the Egyptians never developed a maritime culture. Sightseeing barges may be an indelible portion of Nile culture going back to the pharaohs, but their impact on economic activity is limited to tourism — the near exclusive province of either foreigners (in the modern age) or Egypt’s tiny elite (in any age).

Taken together, these Nile characteristics — its lack of navigability and sinuous nature — deeply affect Egypt’s social, political and economic development.

Transport via water is cheaper than land transport at least by a factor of 10. Waterways are generally free, and the cost of fuel per unit of cargo is remarkably less. The lack of navigable waterways in Egypt means that goods can only be transported by land, with all of the added expenses and inefficiencies that entails. The very shape of Egypt’s populated lands compounds this problem. Since the population lives in the long thin stretch along the Nile’s banks — as opposed to a more compact arable zone such as, say, Mesopotamia — Egypt requires far more infrastructure to link together the same amount of territory.

Think of the congestion of two cities being connected by a thin canyon. The Nile River Valley is like that thin canyon, but without two cities anchoring it. In being long and thin simple concepts like a ring-road are impossibilities. In fact it is even worse: that “canyon” is split laterally by the Nile itself, doubling the required infrastructure. Sustaining such a massive infrastructure for so little usable land is well beyond Egypt’s economic capacity.

The result is Egypt’s extreme poverty. Slavery was the country’s economic system for millennia, and even in the modern day, Egypt’s per capita gross domestic product ranks with the most conflict-torn Arab states.

The lack of a natural transport artery means that what scarce capital the Egyptians do possess must be concentrated in order to construct a limited artificial infrastructure. This infrastructure is required for more than simply the transport of goods. Egypt — all of Egypt, even the Nile River Valley — is a desert. This is not the American Great Plains or the Volga region of Russia where irrigation augments low rainfall to encourage crop growth. This is hard desert where agriculture of any kind is impossible without omnipresent irrigation. And roads and irrigation canals do not build themselves, nor are they something that a small or light-handed political authority can manage. Their construction and even maintenance require planning and the pooling of capital and manpower on a national scale.

The result is that, for all of recorded Egyptian history, central authorities have managed (critics would say hoarded) what small amounts of capital the country has been able to scrape together. As those authorities have controlled both the money and the infrastructure that flows from it, they have found it a simple matter to dominate the masses. Former President Hosni Mubarak regularly invoked the majesty of the ancient pharaohs in order to bolster the legitimacy of his rule. He had a point: his method of managing the population is very similar to how Egypt’s population has always been managed: directly via powerful security services.

The Impact of Isolation

If the Nile is the country’s dominant feature, and concentration (of population, resources and power) is its dominant characteristic, then isolation and domination are the prevailing themes in Egypt’s foreign and military policy. More than any other country in the Eurasian-African landmass, Egypt is alone. The sheer size of the country’s surrounding deserts sharply limits interaction, much less invasion. Even in the one approach not totally dominated by desert — following the Nile south from the Egyptian heartland — it is more than 1,000 kilometers before another political entity can be reached.

As one might expect from the sheer length of Egypt’s history, changes in political geography and technology have radically reshaped Egypt’s development.

The technologies of the ancient world were extremely limited. Only the most basic agricultural and construction techniques were available. Technological advancement was an extremely slow affair. Barbarians could erupt from the surrounds at any time, and wild beasts could be just as disruptive to a community. People clustered together in small familial groups for protection, but primitive technologies limited those groups’ size. Farming had to be supplemented by hunting and gathering, and for hunting and gathering to be effective tribes had to be at least semi-mobile. This greatly limited any chances for technological evolution.

Under such circumstances, the most advanced communities developed in areas that shared two common characteristics. First, these communities needed a river to provide reliable water supplies. Without a river, agriculture would never be able to displace hunting and gathering as early civilized man’s primary food source. Second, they needed a physical environment that allowed farmers a degree of protection from threats. Terminal desert valleys fit the bill. Such valleys are normally broader and flatter than upper-valley regions, allowing for more reliable river flow and easier irrigation, while the desert nature of the areas reduces the predator population, provides substantial barriers against invaders and limits the ability of the labor force to migrate elsewhere.

It should come as no surprise that the three original human civilizations — Sumeria, Egypt and Harappa — were all in such regions. Such protection allowed early cultures to develop and advance. In time the bickering Sumerian city-states were overcome by the Persians, while (most likely) an earthquake shifted the course of the Indus, ending the ancient Harappa civilization due to drought. The Nile, however, granted both superior insulation and a more stable hydrosphere, drawing rainfall as it did from two separate catchment basins. These critical differences allowed the Egyptians to unite on their own time schedule and reign undisputed over their lands for roughly two millennia.

By 6000 B.C., humans were living in communities all over the Nile’s course. These communities were considerably larger than most of their contemporary communities in Africa or Asia, and were already taking the first steps from dry farming (without irrigation) to wet farming (with irrigation). By 4000 B.C., these communities had shrunk in number but increased in size and had become city-states. By 3600 B.C., copper had been developed, raising food production per unit of work, while advancements in pottery allowed for the limited storage of food surpluses. Growing populations led to more sophisticated — and larger — political systems. By 3200 B.C., the Nile cities had consolidated into three kingdoms: Thinis, Naqada and Nekhen. For the next 200 years, these three entities maneuvered against each other for domination of the Nile between the Mediterranean coast and what is today the city of Aswan. Records are sketchy, but it appears that Naqada was conquered in war while Thinis and Nekhen merged diplomatically and together formed Egypt’s first pharaonic dynasty.

For the next 1,400 years the Egyptians dwelt in the isolation their desert borders granted them and honed their culture. Known as the Old and Intermediate kingdoms during this time, the Egyptians faced no serious external threat, and their dense population and cutting-edge (for the time) technologies allowed them to easily repel whatever enemies emerged from the desert. This was the age of the pyramids.

But the pyramids were symptomatic of Egypt’s ancient problem. After unification in about 3000 B.C., Egypt faced no competitive pressures. The days were always sunny; the river always flooded in the spring, bringing with it fresh sediment; Egypt’s deserts always stopped potential invaders cold. There was no impetus for change. Egypt may have been thriving, but it was also stagnant. The dominant technologies — complex irrigation techniques, language, writing and bronze metallurgy — had all been developed in Egypt’s pre-dynastic period, when the kingdoms of Thinis, Naqada and Nekhen were struggling for dominance. Most notably during those struggles the early Egyptians had no time to construct the massive pyramids for which they would in time become famous.

Once unification was completed, the competitive pressure that had driven Egyptian progress evaporated. Instead of developing new technologies, Egypt’s captive labor supply was used to celebrate their culture. The only ostensible competition Egypt faced was the effort by each generation of rulers to build more and grander monuments than those who came before. The result was an explosion in art but little else — the age of the pyramids was in reality the long, slow decline of Egyptian civilization.

The mindset of eternal stability was so deeply entrenched that when ancient Egyptian scholars discovered that they had failed to account for the extra day in leap year, instead of adjusting their calendars they decided it would be less disruptive to wait until their calendar — too short by 0.25 days annually — simply cycled all the way around again, a process that took 1,461 years. When that day arrived the Egyptian leadership declined to make the adjustment, since, from their point of view, the inaccurate calendar had triggered no deleterious events in the past millennia and a half. A more modern example indicates that this mindset is mostly unchanged. Egypt began producing cotton in the first half of the 19th century, but it was not until 2005 that Egypt took the next logical step and began producing textiles.

This complete disinterest in advancement did not so much retard Egypt as stop completely its social, political, economic and military evolution. And as the rest of the world caught up to Egypt, it became an easy target for anyone who was advanced enough to cross its desert buffers. The first foreign invaders to make the trek were the Hyksos in 1620 B.C. who are defined in history by this success, their name even deriving from the Old Egyptian words heka-khaswet, meaning “rulers of foreign lands.” It is from the Hyksos that the Egyptians picked up some of what is in contemporary times considered Egyptian trademarks — such as chariots. Little else is known of the invaders (aside from the fact that their rule of Egypt ended around 1530 B.C), suggesting that they were not particularly powerful players in the early world.

Egypt’s experience with Hyksos rule did shake the pharaohs from their complacency for a time, giving rise to the New Kingdom, a 500-year span in which Egypt partially adopted many of the technologies that had become commonplace elsewhere in the world. Bolstered by the still impressive isolation of its core territories, Egypt used those technologies to expand to its greatest geographic extent, stretching from the site of modern-day Khartoum to the Syrian-Turkish border on the Mediterranean. But while Egypt was still powerful, the culture of complacency remained deeply entrenched. And the new technological revolutions — sailing ships and iron — required wood to produce, something Egypt and its new territories had very little of. From 1000 B.C. on, Egypt was clearly in decline.

But most important, the world had moved on and the isolation granted by Egypt’s deserts could now be overcome quite easily by far smaller powers. Invasions, often successful, came frequently. Aside from a few brief periods of sovereignty between the mid-17th century B.C. and the late 4th century B.C., Egypt has been dominated by outsiders ever since. This list includes some of the most influential powers in world history: Nubians, Assyrians, Persians (on three separate occasions), Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs (under a multitude of different empires), Ottomans, French and British.

Egypt did not regain control over its own affairs until the British granted it independence in the first half of the 20th century, but this does not mean that Egypt was unimportant or disappeared from world history. The very factors that made Egypt a successful power in the ancient world — high, dense and reliable food production in a region that was difficult for those less advanced to reach — made it a central factor in the strategic calculus of any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean power. Egypt was far and away the most valuable land in North Africa, the Levant and Arabia (at least until the discovery of oil). From Morocco to the mountains of Persia, no other territory could produce so much food so reliably yet be defended so easily. And so Egypt passed hands among a variety of powers for nearly all of the past 3,000 years, serving as the grain source for whoever boasted the most powerful regional military of the day. Egyptian grain fed the armies of everyone from Cyrus and Alexander to Napoleon and the East India Company.

These invaders approached Egypt from one of three avenues. The first approach is down the Nile from the south. By the time the Nile reaches Khartoum — the capital of modern-day Sudan and the point at which the Nile splits into its two major tributaries, the White Nile and Blue Nile — rainfall has increased to the point that limited agriculture is possible without Nile-fed irrigation. With non-irrigated agriculture came broader population bases and the possibility of political entities that could challenge Egyptian control of the Nile. Such potential challenges came in the form of a direct military assault, or a sufficient diversion of the Nile’s waterways that Egypt could die of thirst. Egypt has been conquered only once from this direction, by the Nubians in the 7th century B.C. In the modern era, the presence of the Aswan High Dam and the lake it forms (Lake Nasser) greatly limit north-south interactions on the Nile.

The second approach is from the east along the coastal plain, where an invader based in the Levant could cross the Sinai Desert and reach the Nile Delta. With the exception of the Nubian invasion, all successful land-based attacks on Egypt have come from this direction. (An approach from the west along the Mediterranean coastal plain is largely impossible, since the coastal region becomes more arid as one moves into Libya. Sizable populations cannot be supported again until one reaches modern-day Tunisia, the site of ancient Carthage. No successful attack against Egypt has ever been launched from this direction, with Erwin Rommel’s World War II attempt being the most recent and the most historically notable.) The African-Eurasian land bridge allows for sea support, and the distance to the relatively well-watered Levant is about 400 kilometers. The Hyksos, Assyrians, Persians, Mongols and Ottoman Turks all attacked Egypt via this route.

The final approach to the Egyptian core territory is from the sea. Since Egypt is entirely desert and nearly all of its population lives inland on the Nile, there are neither trees available for building ships nor a population with the sea in its blood. Consequently, Egypt has always been a land power. Anyone who can project force across the Mediterranean can quite easily dominate Alexandria, disrupt any land-based military supply route to the Levant, and wrest control of Egypt from whoever happens to be ruling it at the time. The Greeks, Romans, French and British have all dominated Egypt in such a manner.

Independent Egypt

Due to large-scale destruction in Europe during the two world wars, the European empires collapsed. In Egypt, the United Kingdom withdrew its forces in 1922 and its influence was purged by a coup in 1952 led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser. The successful coup plotters attempted to predict who would replace the United Kingdom as the dominant power of the Mediterranean. The choices were the United States and the Soviet Union.

Up until that time, the Egyptians had had no meaningful contact with either power, giving them no historical basis on which to make a forecast. Ultimately, Nasser’s government bet on the Soviets, since they were closer and seemed far more aggressive. The Americans had liberated France and the Low Countries, but the Soviets had flatly conquered all of Central Europe. It appeared that Soviet-backed revolts in both Greece and Turkey would allow the Soviet navy to enter the Eastern Mediterranean in force, while the Americans seemed content to manage an alliance of depleted powers in Western Europe. America’s global naval strategy had not yet emerged, nor was it clear that the United States’ economic heft would restructure the global economic system. The British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis cemented Nasser’s belief that Soviet power would be Egypt’s guarantor.

The geopolitical core of “Nasserism” — that Egypt is the pivot of the Arab world — comes naturally to an ethnicity that prides itself on being the longest surviving culture in the world. The country has been in the thick of international maneuvering since classical antiquity and has always been seen as a territory that must be controlled in order to project power into the wider region. Nasser did not argue with the concept of Egypt as a springboard — he simply declared that the springboard should be the starting point rather than an intermediate point.

In Nasserite Egypt, the Soviets found an enthusiastic ally, and Soviet subsidization remade a normally sedate Egypt. Soviet largess constructed the Aswan High Dam and completely reconstructed the military, which for centuries had been designed almost wholly for domestic control. In 1967 and 1973, that military returned to the Levant for the first time since the era of the New Kingdom in the 13th century B.C. Yet these battles with modern-day Israel all failed, in part because the Nasserites had misread the geopolitical situation.

American power rests on two factors: the massive U.S. economy and the ability of the U.S. Navy to control the world’s oceans. Add in the Soviet Union’s largely land-based military and the destruction of the European navies in World War II and it was almost inevitable that, given time, the United States would dominate the Mediterranean as much as it already did the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The key phrase here is “given time.” From Nasser’s point of view in the mid-1950s, American ascendance was not certain. He went with what he knew. He was wrong.

By the 1960s, Soviet naval power in the Mediterranean Sea was only a shadow of what the Americans could deploy. The United States’ far larger economy subsidized Egypt’s Israeli competitor with volumes of aid that were larger than what the Egyptian economy could grow in a year. By the 1970s, Greece and Turkey had largely purged themselves of Soviet influence and were committed NATO members. Their control over the Turkish Straits and the Aegean Sea severely crimped the Soviet navy’s ability to access, much less influence, the Mediterranean.

As the gap between Soviet promises and American reality widened, the continuation of Nasser’s policies shifted from somewhat unrealistic to incredibly dangerous. American military domination of the region made Egypt’s continued access to global markets dependent upon American largess. The wars with Israel had halted income from the often-mined Suez Canal. And Israel’s threat during the 1973 Yom Kippur war to bomb the Aswan High Dam — the destruction of which could well have ended Egypt completely — made the concept of continuing hostilities potentially suicidal.

And so Cairo — first under Anwar Sadat and then under Hosni Mubarak — changed Egypt’s alliance structure from one deadly to Egyptian interests to one more rational and reflective of both historical precedent and geopolitical reality. A de facto alliance with the United States granted not only regular commerce, aid and a reopening of the Suez Canal but also guaranteed that the Israelis would not push into — much less past — the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt’s Geopolitical Imperatives

1: Secure the Nile from the Delta to as Far Upstream as Feasible

Pushing north to the Nile Delta is an obvious requirement for any successful Egyptian government. The delta region is wide and flat, and eons of seasonal flooding have left it with deep layers of fertile sediment. The delta’s compact shape also allows for some economies of scale in infrastructure development. But perhaps most important, the delta allows for contact with the outside world. Egypt is extremely capital poor, and gaining even indirect access to global capital markets is no small achievement. Extending Egyptian influence downstream to the Mediterranean is absolutely critical.

The opposite is true when Egypt pushes upstream, where it quickly encounters diminishing returns. The Nile River Valley narrows the farther south it goes, increasing the relative costs of development. The valley does widen eventually, but by the time it reaches Khartoum, Egypt finds the area impossible to control. That far south, rainfall finally increases to the point that populations can exist beyond the river. This places Egypt in competition for the river’s water resources while robbing it of the insulation of the deserts. And there is always the tyranny of distance. Khartoum is fully 1,600 kilometers from Aswan, and 2,600 kilometers from Cairo. The supply chains necessary to occupy these far southern regions are at the extreme upper limit of what Egypt can sustain, and it can do that only when Egypt is powerful and its southern neighbors are weak.

Such a balance of forces in the south is not the situation today. In modern times, Egyptian power stops at the northern shore of Lake Nasser. The creation of the Aswan High Dam flooded the Nile valley south to and beyond the Sudanese border, drowning all connecting infrastructure with it. At present, there are no significant infrastructure links between Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt’s primary obstacle in securing the Nile upstream is internal. Regardless of era, Egypt has been densely populated, and the sheer length of the Nile’s track makes it difficult for a power based in the delta to influence Aswan (and points beyond) and vice versa. The traditional solution has been to leverage the desert borders and establish a severe authoritarian state enabled by a powerful security service. Unlike most countries, Egypt is not a place that anyone can simply walk out of. To do so (without divine intervention) would lead to death in the desert. This means that whoever rules Egypt can use harsh tactics to manage the population and even the elite. The pharaohs “solved” this problem with slavery. Modern Egypt solves it with the Central Security Forces.

2: Command the Suez Isthmus Completely

Egypt is very poor. Sustaining civilization of any type in Egypt requires gathering what scarce capital the region has and then exploiting the captive Egyptian labor pool to build and maintain omnipresent water-management systems. Failure to do this results in famine and civilization breakdown, the two overriding fears of Egyptian governments in general and the pharaohs in particular.

The only means of accelerating the critical waterworks efforts is to find a reliable source of supplemental income. In modern times, Egypt has adapted its agricultural base to produce cotton, a crop whose demand for high temperatures, solar input and water supplies are uniquely suited to Egypt. Cotton has indeed supplied the country with additional income streams that have stabilized the system, but the income has an obvious cost: Every hectare of land that is dedicated to cotton is one not dedicated to wheat. As cotton output increased, Egypt found itself importing more and more food. Today roughly 60 percent of the country’s wheat requirements are imported. Egypt may have achieved slightly more capital, but it came at the extremely steep cost of being dependent upon outside naval powers to feed its population.

Most of the Middle East is as capital poor as Egypt. With the exceptions of the Ottoman Turks and modern-day petroleum emirates, it has long been a region where commerce passes through — not where it originates or terminates.

There are three primary routes that connect capital-rich Europe with capital-rich Asia. The first is the long, dangerous and extremely expansive all-land route known as the Silk Road, which requires its users to submit to Turkish authority and then travel by land through Central Asia. Even if such brave traders survive the more than 6,000 continuous kilometers of barbarian-infested steppes, this route ends in interior China. Another mix of relationships is required to access other parts of Asia. In modern times there are precisely two railroad paths that comprise the modern Silk Road, and reaching from Western Europe to China requires traversing no fewer than four countries — and typically as many as 10.

The second route begins at the Mediterranean and requires transfer to land-based routes in the Levant, a region known for its disharmony since well before Biblical times. Traders must choose between the mountains of Anatolia, the political intrigues of Syria (considered a region rather than a country until the modern era) or the security concerns of Palestine (modern-day Israel) before accessing Mesopotamia. Then — assuming that Mesopotamia is not at war with Persia, some Levantine power, or both — one must reload his cargo on someone else’s ship at one of the Persian Gulf’s extremely poor ports for a second, much longer, sail to or around India and Southeast Asia. (Technically, one could sail all the way around Africa, but bear in mind that the first successful journey did not occur until the 15th century and even then the journey took two years.)

Or one could use the third option, and simply cross the 160-kilometer isthmus where Africa meets the Sinai Peninsula. The Suez crossing has always been critical to Egypt, going as far back as the time of the pharaohs. The isthmus of land between Africa and Eurasia proved central in two ways: serving as an interface between Egypt and any land-based trade route and serving as a major trade artery for coastal traffic between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea (and the Indian Ocean beyond it). By controlling the Suez route the Egyptians could tap the rest of the world on their own terms. In ancient times, this helped the pharaohs to exist in splendid wealth and isolation. In more modern times, taxes on the trade link have helped mitigate Egypt’s constant capital shortfall, and even bolstered its international position.

Until the industrial era, cargo loading and unloading was required at both ends of the Suez crossing, but the short distance greatly simplified logistics. Additionally, the Suez region lies just close enough to Egypt that Egypt had an interest in facilitating trade (by maintaining the loading/unloading infrastructure) but the region is not so close that anyone actually had to transverse Egypt’s densely populated territories (thus exposing the captive Egyptian masses to foreign ideas). It was not until 1990 that the Egyptian population began to expand toward the region’s northern extremities. Most of the route remains a passage through hard desert.

Then there is the issue of canals. Under a variety of governments, the Egyptians endeavored to link the Nile region to the southern side of the Suez Isthmus where it joined the Red Sea in order to better control the trade and profit from it. Engineering difficulties, the vagaries of desert weather and Egyptian political changes (often including the disorganizing impact of the country being conquered) typically prevented the route from being open for more than a few decades at a time. The modern-day version of this route is the French-built Freshwater Canal (aka the Cairo-Ismailia Canal). Although numerous low bridges make it useless for transport, the canal allows for irrigation and therefore an Egyptian population footprint in a strategic area.

In 1869, the French completed a north-south route now known famously as the Suez Canal. Transport costs fell so drastically that choosing the Suez route for trade between Europe and Asia shifted from being the logical choice to the only choice. The Silk Road, in decline for centuries due to the increasing popularity of deepwater navigation, died outright. Even in the modern post-Soviet era it shows few meaningful signs of regenerating.

In 2009, Egypt earned approximately $5 billion in canal fees, or about 3 percent of gross domestic product. That may not sound like a large influx of funds, but bear in mind that total Egyptian exports during that time were less than $35 billion, total government revenues were only $51 billion and a lock-free, level-water canal like Suez requires minimal maintenance. The Suez isn’t the lifeblood of Egypt — that’s obviously the Nile — but control over the Suez does let Egypt aspire to something more promising than destitution. If there is anything that Egyptians of all eras will fight for it is control over this tiny sliver of land and the canal that now cuts through it.

3: Maintain Friendly Relations with the Dominant Sea Power of the Mediterranean

Egypt is an inveterate land power. Very little of its population has exposure to ocean, the country has little of the materials required to build a navy regardless of historical era and it possess even less of the capital necessary to fund a navy. It is also an extremely weak power. Egypt has always lacked the capital required to sustain the educational infrastructure and traditions required to advance itself.

By the time the ancient period drew to a close, the rest of the world had moved on with new technologies that the Egyptians were only rarely able to absorb, much less develop themselves. As a result, Egypt’s independence and even survival can easily be threatened by any land power that can cross the desert, or any hostile sea power that can take over Alexandria or simply limit Egypt’s contact with the outside world.

These two characteristics require Egypt — regardless of government — to seek a friendly relationship with the region’s dominant sea power, regardless of who that power happens to be. Success in this insulates Egypt from any nearby land powers, guarantees Egypt’s ability to export whatever product it wishes and ensures a steady income stream from the Suez Isthmus. But perhaps the biggest benefit that Egypt gains from such a relationship is that the dominant naval power will apply its own resources to protecting and/or strengthening Egypt. Whether the dominant naval power allies with or occupies Egypt, it has a vested interest in maximizing its activity across Suez. The most notable and long-lasting example of such interest was the French construction of the Suez Canal, something that the Egyptians, with their extremely low propensity to incorporate — much less develop — technology, could never have built themselves.

Egypt must pursue such an alliance by any means necessary. At times it means swearing allegiance to an outsider. Other times tribute relations are sufficient to satisfy the region’s dominant power. Some Egyptian leaders, such as Cleopatra, have been successful with more personal approaches. In modern times, all it requires is a peace treaty with a neighbor (Israel) and a promise to not act as a proxy for anyone hostile to American interests whether that power be a stateless Caliphate or headquartered in Moscow.

Contemporary Challenges: Life After Mubarak

Early 2011 was a dramatic period in modern Egyptian history. The mainstream media’s narrative on the Arab Spring portrayed popular uprisings as the driving force that swept away the regime of Hosni Mubarak and opened the door to democracy. But a closer examination indicates that the rules of the past still apply. Concentration of power, physical isolation from the outside world and dependence on outside forces for economic security remain the trifecta that drives Egyptian society and governmental development.

To understand the Arab Spring one must first understand the factors that led to it. This is a discussion that must begin not with the aspirations of those who protested in Tahrir Square but with the strategic imperatives of the military, the true vanguard of the Egyptian state.

Nasser’s plan to elevate the military as the vanguard of society worked, but in the years after Nasser’s death the military shifted its position. Rather than partnering with the Soviets to create a regional sphere of influence, the military evolved its position in Egyptian society into a system of ossified control. The state still owned nearly everything of worth, but it was managed by and for the benefit of the military brass. Everything from banks to import/export firms to agricultural operations — already heavily influenced by the military under the system — were consolidated into a series of military oligarchies. Rather than working to elevate Egypt economically, the military oligarchs mostly divvied up the local spoils and lived large.

This was a stable system from the late 1970s until the mid-2000s. Egypt’s shielded geography limited the ability of any international economic interest to challenge the military’s many personal fiefdoms. Egypt’s partnership with the United States mitigated international pressure of all sorts, and in many ways even Egypt’s ostracism from the Arab world due to its treaty with Israel allowed Egypt’s generals to rule Egypt however they saw fit.

As Mubarak aged, however, an internal challenge to the military oligarchy arose in the form of the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, who wanted to transform Egypt from a military oligarchy into a more traditional Egyptian dynasty. Doing this required the breaking of the military’s hold on the economy. Gamal and his allies — often with the express assistance of international institutions like the World Bank — worked to “privatize” Egyptian state assets for themselves. This process was a direct threat to the military’s political and economic position at the top of Egyptian society. The military also viewed Gamal, who never completed his military service, as a political neophyte, incapable of understanding the country’s strategic imperatives and managing its security apparatus.

The result was Egypt’s Arab Spring. In the months leading up to the January demonstrations, Egypt’s top generals were delivering very stern ultimatums to the president to abandon any hope of passing the reins to Gamal while looking at their options to unseat Mubarak via less conventional means. The military strategically positioned itself early on during the demonstrations as the honest broker and guardian of the protesters, taking care to avoid a violent crackdown on the demonstrators while Mubarak’s internal security forces were vilified on the streets. Such a light hand was due not to lack of capacity but to lack of need. The demonstrations provided the generals with the means to remove Mubarak, the biggest liability to their own livelihood, while maintaining the military’s paramount role.

Perhaps the clearest indication that the “revolution” was misconstrued comes from the participation levels. On the day that Mubarak ultimately stepped down the protests reached their peak. By the most aggressive estimate, only 750,000 people — less than 1 percent of the population of densely populated Egypt — took to the streets. In true revolutions, such as those that overthrew communism in Central Europe and the Shah in Iran, the proportion regularly breached 10 percent and on occasions even touched 50 percent. In short, Egypt’s Arab Spring was a palace coup, not a revolution.

But the military’s Mubarak-removal strategy did not come without risks. The military would much prefer to return to the days of ruling behind the scenes while leaving day-to-day governing to a civilian government that ultimately answers to the generals. But the political opening that the military helped create has also greatly complicated matters. The military must now employ a much more complex balancing act at home to keep the civilian government impotent, the opposition divided and foreign funding flowing toward a half-hearted democratic transition.

With trade and tourism severely curtailed as a result of Egypt’s political unrest, the military must make a special effort to keep up democratic appearances for the West now that the country depends again on the economic largess of outside powers. In dealing with the opposition at home, the military is no stranger to divide-and-conquer tactics and has maintained a robust intelligence service to keep tabs on an already severely divided opposition. But the signs of strain are already showing; the military now needs to learn how to manage an Islamist-concentrated opposition in the parliament as opposed to its usual practice of making mass arrests and breaking up sporadic demonstrations. The rewriting of Egypt’s Constitution — a process that the military intends to fully control — will likely result in major disappointments that the opposition will have to contend with in the months ahead, adding more friction to the delicate arrangements the military has been seeking out with key opposition factions to remove this fight from the streets.

The more attention the Egyptian military must devote to internal matters the more its problems will grow in the immediate neighborhood. A U.S.-Arab-Turkish consensus on the need to contain Iran has Syria to the north in the regional spotlight, where a domestic political crisis is fast evolving into a regional proxy battle. Meanwhile, Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas is preparing itself for change to come out of Damascus (where the Hamas politburo is currently headquartered) while trying to leverage the political evolution that is already well under way in Egypt. The political legitimacy being granted to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt via this transition has provided Hamas, an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, with an opportunity to rebrand itself as a mainstream political operator, one that is just as capable as the Muslim Brotherhood to break out of political isolation in Gaza.

But Hamas will have to do more than conduct a public relations campaign to break out of isolation. The Egyptian military, which shares Israel’s interest in keeping Hamas contained and the Sinai buffer clear of foreign threats, remains the biggest obstacle to Hamas’ strategic objective of dominating the Palestinian political scene. Hamas would like to see a political evolution in Egypt that results in an Egyptian Islamist government friendly to Hamas and hostile to Israeli interests. This is an ambitious agenda, but it is likely worth pursuing from the point of view of the Hamas leadership.

The best chance that Hamas has of accelerating this evolution is by creating a crisis of legitimacy for the Egyptian military by drawing the military into a conflict with Israel. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, and there is no shortage of militant proxies that have benefited from the Egyptian military’s political distractions to expand their areas of operations in the Sinai. Israel is already frustrated by the Egyptian military’s slackened control over the Sinai and tends to revert to a more preemptive regional posture when neighborhood threats cross a certain line. Add to this the potential for Iran and Syria to exercise their militant-proxy options to take the attention off regime-change campaigns in Damascus and Egypt could find itself in the midst of a Sinai crisis with Israel that both sides have spent the past 33 years desperately trying to avoid.

This is not an evolution that will take place overnight. After all, Israel and Egypt went to war in 1973 to create the very peace that they are trying to preserve. This peace treaty is the foundation of external security for both sides of the Sinai Peninsula and it will take a lot of organization and effort to break it apart. But the coming years will also put the Arab-Israeli balance of power, as defined by peace between Egypt and Israel, under an unprecedented level of strain.

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