What was unexpected about Syria and Egypt?

Middle-East watchers have been surprised by the events in Syria and Egypt the last 2 years. The betting markets in 2011 and 2012 expected the collapse of the Syrian regime, but it didn’t happen. The West and most Al-Jazeera commentators thought the coup that deposed the Morsi-government was unsustainable and that some accommodation with the Brotherhood would have to be found. Even Israeli analysts, who by and large were against the Morsi-government, predicted that the new military regime could not survive. Both judgements seem incorrect so far: the Syrian regime looks safe and the Egyptian military junta is now as firmly in charge as ever. What did the watchers miss, ie what should we pay more attention to in the future that we didn’t see before?

And let me honest and say that I too was wrong on both counts: I have been making a point of giving predictions on many aspects of European and Middle Eastern politics for about 4 years now. I called lots of things right, from the chaos in Lybia, to the continued Greek bailouts in the EU, to the rise of the Egyptian brotherhood. Nearly everything, except for the developments in Syria and Egypt. As I said in December 2013, I thought in 2012 that the Americans would arm some part of the Syrian opposition and thus bring down the Assad regime. The betting markets scored it around 85% likely that Assad would be gone by the end of 2013. Similarly, in August of 2013 I thought there was no way the Egyptian army could so clearly assume total economic and political control (I thought this alongside 15 Al-Jazeera commentators at the time and, apparently, the Israeli intelligence community thought the military junta very fragile too). What did I/we fail to see?

In the case of Syria, it now appears that the missing ingredient was the psychology of the US president. As expected, the US state department did indeed want to pick a winner in the Syrian civil war. At least, Hillary Clinton claims to have argued for it strongly. But Obama vetoed it according to her, apparently not able to see the tremendous disruption that would ensue in the whole region of a failure to interfere. Obama might have been following his father’s belief that to interfere was neo-colonial and would only lead to more future trouble. Obama might have thought that others in the region, such as the Turks, would not tolerate any mayor disruption and take control. Obama might have simply miscalculated the brutality that the Syrian regime was willing to inflict on its own population, or the brutality of the many groups who were being sponsored by other countries. Whatever the reason, it seems Obama won the internal fight and kept the US out of it.

The muddled strategy of the US was pretty hard to foresee in 2011/2012 and it seems to have involved the particular psychology of the president, so on that one the main lesson is that some presidents mean what they say and can deliver when they say they don’t want to involve the US in foreign adventures. To see that coming would require an intimate level of knowledge of the actual psychology of lots of world-leaders, something that is not reasonable to expect from any individual observer because politicians and their entourage make a point of creating an appealing image of themselves which makes it nigh impossible to know what they are really like, so as a mis-predictions go there is little structural to be learned there: a particularly unusual draw of the statistical error term!

In the case of Egypt, what was missed seems more fundamental: no ‘random error’ in sight to explain what has happened. No single individual has behaved unusually, rather the Egyptian population has reacted differently from expected. At least, no one I have read called all the developments before they happened.

Before the Morsi-government came into power in 2012, the military had failed to quell two popular uprisings against its power, once leading to the overthrow of Mubarak and once leading to the old military establishment giving way to younger generals (the failed Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF). Following the analogy of European pro-democracy movements in the mid-19th century, it seemed that on an ideological level the battle for democracy was won and that restoring a military junta would lead to mass-opposition and couldn’t be sustained. The widespread popular support for the Muslim brotherhood and the many decades of discontent with the military ownership of much of the economic resources of the country surely would not fade by the way-side?

Well, fade it did, and spectacularly so. The new dictator was ‘voted’ in by a 96% ‘popular mandate’; thousands of Morsi supporters have been sentenced to death without any real evidence, or were simply gunned down in the streets in an apparently deliberate bloodbath to show who was boss; new provincial governors from the military establishment were installed almost overnight and the judiciary became a puppet of the regime. Worse, it is now clear that the supposed popular uprising against Morsi was to a large degree orchestrated in that the business part of the regime was deliberately creating shortages, electricity outages, and frustrating any reform that the Morsi government was pushing through. The popular discontent that was the excuse by the army to overthrow Morsi was thus only partially due to mismanagement by the Brotherhood, as it was also partially pre-cooked by the military establishment.

Whilst the Morsi-government was genuinely unpopular with the majority of the population, and many ordinary Egyptians seem happy to go along with the indiscriminate killing of Brotherhood supporters, the mystery remains why the general population has been so happy to accept a new and more brutal military dictatorship wherein even more of the economy is under control of the generals and there is even less hope for the millions of young unemployed.

One school of thought has it that the military never truly did relinquish control at all and that there was effectively a changing of the guard within the military: the story goes that the old guard, led by a Mubarak who wanted his son to take over, was purposely abandoned by the younger generals when it came to suppressing popular discontent. Whilst the older generals got the point and made way for the younger generals, the rest of the population was allowed to squabble and argue about the future of Egypt. Once firmly in charge though, so the story goes, the new military leadership systematically plotted the overthrow of the Brotherhood under circumstances that would make the military both popular and undisputed: the unpopularity of the Morsi regime was seen to be useful to the younger generals in order to secure support from the business community, from rich Muslim countries ideologically opposed to the Brotherhood (like the Saudis), and large parts of the population whom it had previously alienated in the failed attempts by the old generals to sow discord (such as via the oppression of the Kopts). In this version of things, the West was caught napping and completely blind to the real power balance in Egypt, leading it to protest at the coup and to demand negotiations with the Brotherhood. Western governments must have seemed like ignorant fools to the generals.

Jim Rose, to his credit, pushed this line of thought immediately after the military coup at the end 2013 on the Club Troppo blogs. I didn’t think it likely because the repression by the military (SCAF) in 2011/2012 (post-Mubarak but pre-Morsi) seemed pretty real and brutal to me, and the population weathered that oppression, making the ‘revolution’ real. The intergenerational dynamic within the military might have played a role, but the idea that some group of generals thought through everything in 2011 seems too much of a conspiracy theory to me: you can’t convince hundreds of business leaders and military leaders to let go of power for 2 years under the promise that you will get it back with interest 2 years later. Your co-conspirators wouldn’t believe you and would fear that what was given up wouldn’t come back. Also, it negates the real hold that the old generals had on the military: they had the torture chambers on full throttle in 2010/2011, so the supposed reluctance of the younger generals to dirty their hands was not that strong. So yes, the changing of the guard within the military would have given rise to a new group of generals who were happy to drag their feet a bit when it came to the interests of the elderly generals, but part of the story has to include the true disappearance of the belief in democracy within Egyptian society.

Another school of thought has it that the experience of the Morsi government was traumatic for the general population and that the population concluded that democracy was merely a recipe for trouble and that you were better off with a clear dictatorship than with the constant upheaval and conflict that you got if you had democracy: a disillusionment of the masses with the democratic experiment. Within this version, even the liberals and the many state bureaucrats who wanted change pragmatically recognised that real elections were not going to be won by competent and liberal political managers, and simply opted for the better of two evils: autocratic control by elected religious zealots or autocratic control by unelected economic parasites.

What ‘jars’ with this version are the indications that many in the population are not happy with the extreme repression of the Al-Sissi regime: it has a very slim current support base following the jailing of human rights campaigners, journalists, social media activists, students, and other members of the intellectual elite. The army didn’t just declare war on the Muslim Brotherhood, but on Egyptian civil society at large.

The quick acceptance of the new regime and hence the abandonment of the previous dreams of inclusion, jobs and bread for the poor, are puzzling. The regime is prepared to jail children and has now freed the hated former dictator. That regime seems to be able to survive without support from anyone but what they call the ‘deep state’, ie the security apparatus and the businesses associated with the army. Apart from the usual followers of fashion, the rest is just oppressed, but they dont just seem to be ‘living with it’, many seem to be surprisingly supportive.

So what is the fuller story? As far as I can ascertain, there are two competing stories that are roughly equally probable from my information set: one is that the military regime is riding its luck at the moment, creating internal enemies all over the place, surviving on foreign money and the desperation of its core supporters, with its seeming popularity being a mere front without real substance. Within that version of events, Egypt could be heading for a civil war – a real shake-down between the entrenched elite and the disenfranchised majority, with religious, ethnic, and social class fault-lines. This seems to be the scenario the Israeli security analysts are thinking about. From that point of view the surprising stability of the military junta is due to its willingness to use extreme violence, as well as having the generous backing of some Gulf states who are bankrolling the regime.

The alternative ‘somewhat probable story’ is that the economic realities in Egypt do not yet conform with a large support base for power-sharing and that the military regime is not as friendless as it may seem: that Egypt is (still) a winner-takes-all society at all levels whereby the identity of the persons at the top are relatively unimportant and where it has simply returned to normality after a brief experiment with a political power-sharing system that did not fit any local habits and conspicuously did not work out.

Things that would have to be true in this second story is that whilst some of the urban intellectuals may dream of Western-style democracies, on the ground, most jobs would still be allocated on a clientelist basis; almost nothing truly would get decided on a democratic basis in cities and villages; and the security apparatus would be a coalition of the winning local militias, each individual militia supported by the local power-brokers. The flirt with democracy was then a curiosity, born from a desperate youth and a momentarily complacent military junta that has now got its act together again and re-established the political system that fits the reality in Egypt better.

I honestly do not know enough about Egypt to say which of those two stories of the Egyptian population, repressed-but-biding-its-time or welcoming-the-return-of-the-masters, is true. Perhaps a third story explains what has happened in Egypt the last 2 years. Observations on the ground might make it possible to discern between those stories, so the main lesson I take from the all-round failure of pundits such as myself to foresee the dynamics within Egypt in the last 18 months is that observers had unrealistic views of local power habits in Egypt. This includes the Egyptian pundits I read at the time (including the 15 pundits Al-Jazeera paraded in August 2013), who all failed to foresee events as they happened and thus were either also oblivious of the strength of various factions and ideologies, or didn’t say what they really thought.

The reasons for the internal Egyptian dynamics thus remain mysterious to me. General historical knowledge and awareness of Egyptian political theories, and even of its internal debates, was not enough: something about Egyptian power culture is not captured by what is generally said about it.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

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