An online acquaintance recommends the movie, "The Yacoubian Building," as offering great insight into modern Egypt. According to the book and movie, Egypt as a nation "has squandered its promise and has been forced to compromise its own principles, resulting in a corrupt and undemocratic political system."
say that was also my impression after 48 hours in Egypt -- here's my slideshow on the pyramids and a bus ride through Cairo and my post on Alexandria. The country has been under a state of martial law since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1982. President Hosni Mubarak, now in his 80s, plans on passing the job of President to his son Gamal, with U.S. blessing. Egypt is viewed by advocates of Islamic democracy as "the sick man of the middle east, teetering on the brink of social precipice."
I saw men fishing in stagnant waters in Cairo, and that
pretty much symbolized the whole society for me: culturally stagnant, under the clamp of one-party rule. Alexandria was far more modern and welcoming to my Western eyes, except for the animal sacrifices we witnessed in the streets.
The U.S. has given Egypt billions in aid and economic assistance since the 1970s -- approximately two billion dollars a year -- but I suspect we are helping to prop up a corrupt regime and not helping enough to advance the causes of self-determination and democracy out of fear that those causes would be overtaken by extremists. Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, observed in 2004 that U.S. aid "offers an easy way out for Egypt to avoid reform. They use the money to support antiquated programs and to resist reforms."
The U.S. is in the delicate and some might say hypocritical position of condemning Arab nations for their autocratic ways and human rights abuses, while at the same time supporting and propping up authoritarian regimes in Arab nations that engage in human rights abuses, that stymie the development of democracy and respect for human rights, and that do not allow dissent or political struggles through peaceful means. Because of our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, we fund and empower autocracies that quash democracy. Does not terrorism grow in part from frustration that the political process is anti-democratic, that it will not allow, hear, validate or be responsive to citizens' concerns?
That said, if the U.S. withdraws support from the authoritarian Egyptian government and it falls to Islamic extremists, what then? The United States and Israel depend on Egypt to provide an indispensible role of mediator and leading voice of moderation in the Arab world. Ambassador Walker made a cogent point in a 2006 symposium on "The Future of Egypt":
"I am great proponent for democracy, but I am also a firm believer that we cannot impose it, and that it ought to be up to the Egyptians. The more we interfere, the harder it is for them. We have this real religious commitment to democracy, which we have to constrain if we are going to have substantial relations with these countries and if they are going to be able to get on with the problem of generating democracy from within."
Sometime I should post excerpts from my cousin Abe Katz's blog. He's spending a year in Egypt, and offers interesting insights.