Walker's World: Bush with the pharaohs

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  May 19, 2008 at 11:19 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 19 (UPI) -- The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once noted that the style of magical realism that he pioneered was perhaps the only way to convey the surreal contradictions of the wretched Latin America of the dictators. That insight has seldom been so exemplified as during U.S. President George Bush's farewell tour of the Middle East.

In Israel for its 60th anniversary, his only reference to the central issue of Palestine was to dream aloud of an Israel at peace with a Palestinian state in another 60 years. In Saudi Arabia, he hammered away at his demand that his hosts pump more oil, only to find that they had raised their output by 300,000 barrels earlier in the week. And in Egypt, he returned yet again to the mission he defined in his 2005 inaugural address of bringing democracy to that turbulent region.

"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush told the World Economic Forum gathered at Sharm el-Sheik. "The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices, and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve.

"Economic reform must be accompanied by political reform. I continue to hope that Egypt can lead the region in political reform," Bush said. "The changes I have discussed today will not come easily. Change never does. The future is in your hands, and freedom and peace are within your grasp."

The good news is that there is economic growth and some reform across the Arab world, much of it fueled by investment and remittances from the oil-rich Gulf states. The bad news is that Bush's call for democracy has collided with his war on terrorism and stalled them both.

Nowhere is this contradiction more blatant than in Egypt, where a slight loosening of political control by the regime of President (and former air force chief) Hosni Mubarak brought multiparty elections three years ago and a short-lived resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood. This allowed the Mubarak regime to clamp down again, publicly warning Bush that Islamic extremism would be the main beneficiary of his urgings for democracy, as though the choice were stark between Mubarak's authoritarian rule and Osama bin Laden.

Bush, and indeed his likely replacement -- Barack Obama or John McCain -- would do well to read John R. Bradley's latest book, "Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution" (Palgrave Macmillan). Bradley, a British journalist who was managing editor of Arab News in Saudi Arabia, speaks fluent Egyptian Arabic and lives in Egypt. His last book, "Saudi Arabia Exposed," was the most original and informative book on the desert monarchy to have appeared. His new book on Egypt, hailed as "brave and essential" by the celebrated Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany, author of "The Yacoubian Building," is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Egypt and the looming dramas of the Arab world.

Bradley points out that the Islamic Brotherhood gets only a fraction of the votes and has few roots in the mass of the population, whose preferred form of worship is far more relaxed and ecumenical and even joyful. The puritanical Islamism of the Brothers seeks to suppress the hugely popular Moulid festivals and the Sufism that has such strong roots in Egypt. But Bradley fears that in the aftermath of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood may be the only political organization left standing to pick up the pieces.

Bradley interviews at length Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of the Brotherhood, who tells him: "The Brotherhood will never be able to apply their preferred strict version of Shariah (Islamic law) in Egypt if they come to power, because they would be restricted by the Egyptian people who mostly do not want this. ... They can only thrive in opposition. All experiments to establish an Islamic state in the modern era have failed, because an Islamic state is not a natural phenomenon. Authority always corrupts religion."

The Mubarak regime, which is much more of a military-run corporate state than a conventional dictatorship, finds the Brotherhood politically useful as a subtle threat to the Bush administration. The great question is whether the military elite, who now also run the public sector corporations and sit on the boards of the growing private companies, will swallow Mubarak's dream that his son Gamal will succeed him, as Syrian President Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar. If the technocrat-minded Gamal does inherit the throne (which would be highly unpopular with most Egyptians), then like Bashar in Syria his room for reformist maneuver would be greatly restricted by the generals.

The key to the future will be the economy. The current pace of economic growth is just about keeping its nose ahead of the growth in the labor supply as the youth bulge enters the job market. Egypt, by far the largest country in the Arab world, faces the lion's share of the great Arab challenge, which will be to find jobs for the 100 million young Arabs who will be seeking work over the next 10 years. Globalization, in the way that China and India have taken advantage of the process to achieve sustained and dramatic growth rates, is probably the best hope.

India has managed to achieve hypergrowth while remaining a democracy with a flawed but functioning rule of law and a free media. China has done so without these political benefits. Turkey is the only predominantly Islamic country to have achieved sustained growth and has remained a kind of democracy, although this has been and remains a cliff-hanging process. But Turkey had far more support and investment from the United States and Europe than Egypt can hope to expect. Egypt is an ancient nation, whose drama will continue to unfold long after President Bush's sophomoric speeches on democracy are forgotten.

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