Argument

Headed South

Why Egypt could turn out looking like Sudan. And that's not good news.

As Egypt's military takeover unfolded this month, comparisons to Turkey's recent history of military meddling were almost inevitable. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' (SCAF's) 48-hour ultimatum before ousting Islamist President Mohamed Morsy, the country's first popularly elected leader, prompted easy comparisons to Turkey's 1971 "coup by memorandum." Other observers called attention to the parallels with Turkey's 1960 and 1997 coups, among others. In all three cases, the Turkish military returned power to civilian authorities after intervening, just as the SCAF did following Hosni Mubarak's ouster and as it has recently pledged to do again. Given the current tumult in Egypt, a Turkey-esque transition to civilian rule -- despite its own considerable drawbacks -- would arguably be one of the least bad outcomes resulting from the coup.

There is, however, another, far uglier precedent for Egypt's political trajectory: that of its poverty-stricken, authoritarian southern neighbor, Sudan. Egypt's recent history -- from the overthrow of Mubarak to the election of Morsy to this month's military putsch -- parallels the developments in Sudan in the mid-1980s with remarkable accuracy. Sudan's story from this period, moreover, serves as a potent reminder that coups almost always represent a detour, not a shortcut, toward stable, durable democracy.

On May 25, 1969, Gaafar Nimeiry, a young colonel inspired by the Arab nationalist ideology of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power in Khartoum, the capital, in a military coup. For the next 16 years, he ruled Sudan in much the same way as Mubarak ruled Egypt beginning in 1981 -- heavy-handed but secular, and accommodating to his Western backers. And just as such tendencies pitted Mubarak against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Nimeiry faced openly hostile relations with Sudan's Islamist Umma Party. (Those tensions came to a head in 1970 when Nimeiry ordered an attack -- with air support from Egyptian bombers coordinated by Mubarak, an air force officer at the time -- that killed some 12,000 Umma militants and supporters at the party's spiritual base on Aba Island.)

Political repression, however, contributed less to Nimeiry's eventual downfall than systematic mismanagement of the Sudanese economy. During his tenure, rising inflation, high unemployment, and lackluster foreign investment plunged the economy into a tailspin. By 1979, Sudan's GDP was contracting by more than 5 percent annually. As it finally started growing again a few years later, crippling inflation took hold, reaching roughly 40 percent in 1985. When in March of that year Nimeiry announced a rollback of food and oil subsidies in order to repay foreign lenders, including the IMF, protests erupted in Khartoum shortly thereafter. A broad cross-section of Sudanese society -- including doctors, university students, laborers, and union activists -- took to the streets demanding Nimeiry's ouster.

It was precisely this sort of economic malaise that drove the Egyptian protests in 2011. By the time of Mubarak's ouster, 80 percent of Egyptians rated their economic condition as "bad." Poverty was on the rise, with one in four Egyptians living under the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Inflation peaked at 18 percent in 2008 and remained in double-digits through 2010, helping to push up the price of basic goods -- particularly wheat -- despite multibillion-dollar government subsidies. The bleak economic situation hit young Egyptians the hardest. By 2011, Egyptians under age 24 comprised more than half the population, and a whopping 87 percent of the country's unemployed, making it unsurprising that this demographic dominated the ranks of the protesters who overthrew Mubarak.

During Egypt's 2011 revolution, the police mostly remained loyal to Mubarak, but the military proved less reliable -- akin to the circumstances surrounding Nimeiry's ouster in 1985. With protests roiling the Sudanese capital, Sudan's top military commander, Gen. Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab, seized power and formed the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which served as the country's governing authority for the next 12 months. Like the SCAF, which ran post-Mubarak Egypt, the TMC bungled basic governing tasks, but also like the SCAF, it followed through on its promise to hold elections in 1986.

Both uprisings -- Sudan's in 1985 and Egypt's in 2011 -- and their subsequent coups held the promise of a more democratic future. At the same time, however, they revealed the hazards of military stewardship. When juntas empowered by so-called "democratic coups" hand over power to civilian governments, the post-coup governments almost invariably find it hard to address the grievances that enabled the coups in the first place. The end result is a cycle of more popular discontent and more coups. Sudan and Egypt have both proved that they are not exceptions to this rule.

But the troubling parallels extend further. Sudan's post-coup elections in April 1986 ushered Nimeiry's former foe, the Islamist Umma Party, into power. But the coalition government led by Umma's Sadiq al-Mahdi thoroughly botched its stewardship of the economy, devaluing the Sudanese pound to roughly 10 percent of its mid-1970s value and allowing the price of basic commodities to skyrocket. In response, the Sudanese flooded back into the streets to protest, setting the stage for a June 1989 coup. This time, it was Omar Hassan al-Bashir, then an army colonel, who led the military back into the political arena.

Like al-Mahdi and his Umma Party, Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood failed to reverse Egypt's faltering economy. Since Mubarak's ouster, GDP growth has slowed to roughly 2 percent, the unemployment rate has risen to 13 percent, and Standard & Poor's downgraded Egypt's long-term debt rating from BB+ to CCC+. Egypt's foreign currency reserves have also dwindled to $16 billion, half of what they were under Mubarak. While Egyptians chafed at Morsy's creeping authoritarianism, a majority rated having a strong economy as more important than living in a strong democracy in a May public opinion poll. That Morsy could not meet Egyptian expectations for a better economy provided at least part of the impetus for this month's mass demonstrations and coup.

This is where the stories of Sudan and Egypt hopefully diverge. There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic: Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the armed forces, has not undertaken a wholesale power grab like Bashir, who held every major post in Sudan's transitional authority. Any expansion of Sisi's power beyond his new roles of deputy prime minister and defense minister would of course be cause for concern. Meanwhile, statistical evidence suggests that nonviolent mass protest, something Egyptian civilians have shown an aptitude for, is a leading indicator for democratization. Such protests succeed by undercutting the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes and fostering more engaged citizenship. This, in turn, creates disincentives for those in power to roll back democratic gains.

But what if Egypt does follow the Sudanese path? Immediate improvements in service delivery since Morsy's ouster could tempt some Egyptians to embrace a military-backed strongman on the model of Bashir. Indeed, with the military now in charge, rolling power blackouts have disappeared, gas lines have melted away, and the police are now fully deployed. The speed of the turnaround has fueled suspicion that the military -- along with Egypt's old guard bureaucrats -- had been purposely undermining Morsy's rule. The return of an authoritarian regime, however, could have disastrous long-term effects on the Egyptian economy. If there is one lesson from 2011, it's that such regimes have a limited shelf life -- a reality that would likely keep international investors away.

Regardless of what kind of regime emerges, turning around the Egyptian economy poses a monumental challenge. If a civilian government takes office, it will face the same economic troubles that plagued Morsy. The IMF has been pushing Egypt to raise taxes and reduce popular fuel subsidies in return for a badly needed $4.8 billion credit line. Morsy could avoid bowing to IMF pressures because of cash infusions from Qatar, Libya, and others, but the faucet will not remain on forever. In the event that such cuts bring Egyptians to the streets again, the military should stay on the sidelines -- lest Egypt risk giving rise to its own Bashir.

EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Flash Point in the Eastern Mediterranean

Will conflict in the Middle East trigger the next great power war?

We need a strategy for the Eastern Mediterranean.

This is not a new crisis. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy lived and wrote in Egypt a century ago. One of his short, evocative poems is entitled "In Alexandria, 31 B.C." It is about an itinerant peddler who comes to the city to hawk his wears and is beaten badly by the crowds. The poem ends:

And when he asks, now totally confused, 'What's going on here?'
someone tosses him too the huge palace lie:
that Antony is winning in Greece.

Here, in a few lines of poetry, is a metaphor not just for Egypt, but for the entire Eastern Mediterranean: crowd violence, confusion on the ground, economic disruption, and failing strategic communications.

In the midst of such frustration and seemingly intractable hatreds, it may feel like time to simply disengage and walk away. There is enormous Middle East fatigue in the United States -- the majority of Americans oppose intervening in Syria, and few even try to comprehend it all: Palestinians and Israelis, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, Iran and Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, Christians and Druze. To analysts, the region is an arc of crisis; to the public, it is just a mess.

But sailing away would be a huge mistake. Like the Balkans in the years leading up to World War I, the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean are a pile of tinder that could ignite a much wider conflict. As with the assassin's shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it is difficult to predict precisely what could broaden the conflict, but it is impossible to ignore the possibility.   

Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites are bubbling over. Old tensions persist and new ones have arisen over economic resources, notably natural gas fields -- portions of which are claimed by Cyprus, Israel, Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. And great power interest remains as high as ever, with Russia and the United States routinely operating warships in the region. China and India have also sent naval assets to the Eastern Med, where they join traditional NATO deployments from the navies of the 28-nation alliance. The ships merely reflect a broader military presence.

Today, the Syrian civil war is ground zero, with Iran, Russia, and China on one side, and the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and much of NATO on the other. The spark could come with a confrontation between warships, a major terrorist attack by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, or the use of chemical weapons, either in the civil war itself or, worse, in Europe.

So the question with which the United States must grapple is what is our strategy in this complex part of the world, lying as it does next to one of our closest allies, Israel, and on the edge of our strongest alliance system, NATO?

First, we should focus on strong relations with our closest ally in the region: Israel. The relations between the American military and the Israel Defense Forces continue to be vital to both nations. We rely on our Israeli friends for intelligence and context in understanding the region. Likewise, we have excellent military-to-military relations with Turkey, a NATO member and a nation with which we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against the Kurdish terrorists who threaten it. In addition, we are very close with Jordan and have good ties with the Egyptian military.

Over many years, our military has built deep relationships with counterparts at every level. This includes exchanges of military personnel in schools and training commands in the United States; a great deal of military hardware provided, from ships to tanks to planes; assistance in exercises, many of them highly complex; and significant levels of key counterpart visits, conversations, and exchanges. Gifted diplomat-warriors like Jim Mattis, John Allen, Marty Dempsey, Mike Mullen, Dave Petraeus, and many others count their opposite numbers as not only colleagues but, in many cases, good friends. All of this provides some entrée and leverage. We should continue measured military-to-military contact, training, assistance, intelligence sharing, personnel exchanges, and arms sales -- trying to get partners in sync.

Second, we must work in a multilateral context diplomatically. We must continue to pursue the possibility of a Geneva II conference on Syria, as well as strongly supporting the opposition with political, economic, and military assistance. The Assad regime cannot be allowed to remain in power. Similarly, Secretary Kerry's efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian question are worth pursuing. And we have to work with partners like Saudi Arabia to move Egypt toward stability and democracy -- they are in many ways the key to the region, and the ousting of the Islamist Morsy regime appears to be an honest manifestation of the will of a majority of the Egyptian people. A key relationship over time will be between Turkey and Egypt, and finding linkages between them and Israel is squarely in U.S. interests.

Third, there are cyber and strategic communication activities that can help here. We will be unable to fully dominate the flow of information in the strategic communications space, nor can we fully control the cyberworld. But we can work to strengthen the use of social networks ourselves and by our friends to gain information and intelligence; reinforce democracy, rule of law, and due process; and convince "the street" that the United States wants to be part of constructive solutions. Likewise, cyber provides opportunities to advance our agenda while frustrating those of our opponents.

Fourth, we should work on the maritime and strategic resource questions of the region. There will be naval and commercial conflicts, which must be managed. This can be done through confidence-building measures, making sure counterpart navies are in contact and bringing the parties together at conferences, like the U.S. Navy's Strategic Symposium in Newport this fall and NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue.

Above all, we should not give up on the region in frustration. It is worth remembering how long it took us from our own American Revolution in 1776 to simply draw up and ratify a constitution in 1789, put down several revolts and rebellions, create a single currency, and indeed decide what we wanted to be as a nation and a people. Jefferson said, "One should not expect to be carried to democracy on a featherbed." The Eastern Med is far from a featherbed, but U.S. engagement will be an important element in helping bring these nations further along the path to democracy and stability.

-/AFP/Getty Images