January 29th, 2013
12:29 PM ET

Wanting Egypt to fail

By Steven A. Cook, CFR

Editor’s note: Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of From the Potomac to the Euphrates originally appeared here. The views expressed are his own.

Egypt is a mess. Just two short years after the uprising that brought Hosni Mubarak’s long rule to an end, the country is paralyzed politically, protests have become increasingly violent, sectarian tensions are high, the public health system is in total disarray, and the economy is near collapse. Nothing has gone right in this country of 84 million people that has traditionally been the most influential in the region – for good or bad – and since the mid-1970s a pillar of U.S.-Middle East policy. It is not only the peace between Egypt and Israel, but also the U.S. Navy’s access to the Suez Canal, the many daily U.S. military over flights critical to the United States in confronting the Iranian threat, and Egypt’s logistical assistance for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and until not too long ago Iraq that are of paramount importance to Washington.

As a result, an objective observer might come to the reasonable conclusion that Egypt needs help and that the international community should do what it can to help pull Egyptians back from the brink.  That is certainly the view of most analysts from across the political spectrum, yet in one corner of the commentariat, they are actually hoping for Egypt to fail.

I recently came across a piece by David P. Goldman who pretentiously uses the pen name “Spengler” for Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler, an important early20th century German historian and philosopher, that paints a frightening picture of Egypt, its economy, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Spengler/Goldman uses the recent revelation of President Mohammed Morsi’s anti-Semitism as his point of departure for a wild ride through his a-historic revisionism ranging from the claim that economic collapse was the reason for the uprising (a point made moot by his own argument that Egypt is now on the verge of economic collapse) to what the West should have done during those critical 18 days in early 2011. Here is a good example:

No nation the size of Egypt has become ungovernable except as a result of war during the whole modern period. The deterioration of the Arab Spring into societal breakdown constitutes a reproach to the Western foreign policy establishment, which could not envision this outcome before, and refuses to consider its consequences now.

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Spengler/Goldman’s reference to the “modern period” is supposed to give this analysis an air of heavy intellectual seriousness, but what we have here is nothing more than a crude lament that the United States did not give Mubarak a so-called “green light” to crack down two years ago. This is revealing for what Spengler/Goldman does not know about Egypt, its history, and the causes of Hosni Mubarak’s fall, but everyone is a Middle East expert these days. Even if President Obama had signaled that there would be no penalty for an Egyptian version of Tiananmen, it would not have been forthcoming. Egypt’s officer’s would never have risked splitting the army’s loyalty, conscious that the captains, majors, and colonels on duty in Egypt’s streets beginning January 28, 2011 would not have obeyed the order to fire on fellow Egyptians. Once more, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces saw in the uprising an opportunity to rid themselves of Gamal Mubarak and his coterie who threatened their political and economic interests. Underlying Spengler/Goldman’s cry is, of course, an assumption that the United States could drive events in Egypt. Even at moments when Egypt’s main political actors are not engaged in an existential struggle, Washington’s leverage is half-baked at best.

These details do not matter much because Spengler/Goldman is not actually interested in understanding Egypt. No, this isn’t an intellectual enterprise: Spengler/Goldman is engaged in an ideological contest. His target? The Republican Party, for not hanging Egypt on President Obama.

The discovery of Morsy’s apes-and-pigs comment might have provided a pretext for America’s Republican Party to wash their hands of the Egyptian president and shift the blame for the entire mess onto the Obama administration. Such is the loyalty of the Republican mainstream to the so-called freedom agenda of the former Bush administration…

In Spengler/Goldman’s angry binary world, those natives clearly have no agency of their own. It’s spineless American politicians who are to blame for Egypt’s imminent collapse. In the end, Spengler/Goldman comes to the conclusion that Egypt will need $20 billion/year to stay afloat and since the United States and the West don’t have it and since Morsy is a crude anti-Semite, the international community should hasten an Egyptian calamity by withholding whatever aid is available.

Lest anyone believe Spengler/Goldman is an outlier, Shoshana Bryen from the Jewish Policy Center assails the Obama administration for not docking Egypt’s generous military aid and economic aid over Morsy’s anti-Semitism. She cites retired Brigadier General Safwat al Zayat – an ostensible interpreter of the politics of the Egyptian military, but who has been wrong so often that one wonders whether he is part of a military intelligence deception and denial campaign – claiming that the delivery of F-16s to Egypt was a signal from the Obama administration that it supports Morsi. It was a signal, but rather to the military, which continues to work with Washington on its strategic concerns in the region. The anti-Semitism of the Muslim Brotherhood is a problem and should be denounced as the Obama administration has, but to evoke a bygone era of which Bryen was no doubt a supporter, you have to deal with the Egypt you have, not the one you want.

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Topics: Arab Spring • Egypt

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soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. A Ferrante

    This said, dealing with Iran should be the same, right? You should accept the oppression of minorities and Islamism as a way to the future. This time in Egypt, it's Sunni's, same brand of Bin Laden. Enjoy...

    January 29, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  2. Trent, Van Nordstrand

    When was the Start of this event.

    January 29, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  3. Chukwuemeka

    The main problem in Egypt now is trust. Ordinary Egyptians no longer have confidence in President Morsi and the reasons are not far fetched. Last year he encouraged anti-israeli protests that led to the ransack of the Israeli embassy, which he thought was a good political move but this made average Egyptians see him as a sectarian leader out to protect his own nest. So far he has been slow to act as a statesman and father, which is evident in his not fulfilling political promises especially that of a female vice president. Even the military distrust him and so he is caught in the middle of a quagmire.

    January 29, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  4. Ray

    Hmm...Dr. Cook seems to be blasting Goldman for consistently claiming that Egypt will be a failed state, regardless of what the west or ANY Egyptian government does. Well, it does like like Goldman's point of view is closer to reality than that of all of those who waxed poetic about the Arab Spring as the solution to the regions ills.

    January 29, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Reply
    • thinkingdownstream

      I read Goldman's article and I did not get the sense that he *wants* Egypt to fail – rather that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood was doomed to failure from the start and the West's PC attempts to prop up them and their oppressive, anti-semitic theocracy are doomed to fail and so are a waste of time and money.

      Just look at the ME. Take a few moments at least to assess what is happening there. That post-Arab Spring Egypt and the MB's failure was so easily and accurately predictable and predicted should come as a mea culpa and learning experience for Mr. Cook, Obama, et al – but it won't.

      They are too weak and too stubborn to admit they were wrong – dangerously wrong.

      January 30, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply
  5. bradbrzezinski

    "In Spengler/Goldman’s angry binary world..."

    I've been following Goldman's writing for some time and never considered it at all "angry." I can't say the same for this piece though.

    On the topic of Morsi's antisemitism, some questions:

    Why is it all tolerable; what happened to, “never again?” What about the rabid anti-Americanism he exhibited at the same time? The biggest lesson we should have learned from the Third Reich is that antisemitism usually mask other threats.

    Finally, Morsi’s words were pretty much the default position of any big-shot in the Brotherhood; why did “most analysts” not warn that this was to be expected?

    January 29, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  6. Matt A

    Gosh your analysis is superficial. Spengler/Goldman never said he wanted Egypt to fail. He said it would fail. Do you not understand that Egypt has been taken over by a totalitarian government? There is nothing wrong with wanting it to fail. The United States does not have an interest in propping up a Muslim Brotherhood government. And you see no problem with sending F-16's to Egypt? Who exactly is Egypt's enemy that it needs F-16's? Oh yeah, Israel. The Egyptian population at large, based on its values, is an enemy of the United States. Let them have their Islamic government. Just don't expect us to pay for it when it leaves them broke. And don't send them weapons to attack our friends. Unreal.

    January 30, 2013 at 12:04 am | Reply
  7. me

    As an individual who concerns himself with niether of these two parties written texts,(Bible,Koran). I think that Morsi will have to adjust his rule so as to accommadate the aspirations of the people of Egypt to have a free and democratic society, it may get worse before it get better, but the people of Egypt have waited thousands of years for this and I can't see them being stopped. At least these are my wishes for those in Egypt who aspire for real freedom.


    January 30, 2013 at 12:38 am | Reply
  8. Balasticman

    Sadly, it is not only certain foreign commentators wanting Egypt to fail. This same, self-destructive prophesy underlies the central strategy of much of Egypt's opposition movement. http://balasticman.blogspot.it/2013/01/nsf-failing-to-save-nation.html

    January 30, 2013 at 5:35 am | Reply
  9. Tony

    Why didn't you just say "OMG, he's a Republican!"? Because that's about the extent of your engagement with what Spengler wrote.

    January 30, 2013 at 7:33 am | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    This Goldman was out of his mind. How could he suggest the international community to hasten Egypt's demise, just because Morsi "is a crude anti-Semite"? Morsi made outrageous anti-Semitic statements more two years ago. At the time Mubarak was still in power and Morsi didn't know that he would become Egypt's president one day. We outsiders can get rid of him, but if he doesn't heed the people's demads and read the writing on the wall, he will be ousted in the next election.

    January 30, 2013 at 8:42 am | Reply
    • jromeo2

      Herr von Hettlingen, please read Mr. Goldman's initial post before making such a conclusion. In fact, read the dozens of posts he has made following Egypt and the arab spring. No doubt, Mr. Goldman is no friend of a man who calls Jews "the descendants of apes and pigs," or those who would seek to rush to the Egyptian president's aid, but Spengler's continuing analysis of the situation, even from a purely economical standpoint, is practically irrefutable.

      January 31, 2013 at 2:21 am | Reply
  11. Question Everything

    The phrase, "As a result, an objective observer...", usually leads to a poorly disguised rant and I was not disappointed. Apparently anyone who disagrees with Mr. Cook is an extremist, a fool, or has an "agenda" that is not in the interest of (fill in the blank here). The facts on the ground suggest that Egypt is already very close to a failed state. It's population has exploded from 14.5 million in 1945 to 74 million today, with an economy that produces almost nothing and is unable to feed itself. Although the current convulsions are to my eyes a welcome sign that many Egyptians did not wish to exchange one dictator for another, the underlying economic issues will not go away and I am rather pessimistic as to the eventual outcome.

    January 30, 2013 at 8:51 am | Reply
  12. David T

    After reading the news of this unrest, I believe the following to solve this problem.
    First of all, does it seem extreme hate acts like a cancer? It can metastasize even distant cells. You have no idea where it will show up. I believe you must have healthy cells (people) in order to prevent this cancer (i.e. gangs) to "infect" even more (people).
    Secondly, does it seem emotions, both hate and goodwill; are governed by Newton's 3 laws of physics? There is this thing called momentum; where something at rest will stay at rest and that something in motion will stay in motion. It seem some neighborhoods are meaner than others? This may be explained by this momentum equation. These only occur when there is no change of forces acting upon these.
    Third, if we are to save "the hearts and minds" of the youth, leaders need to get creative to reach them. The youth of today uses new technologies (texting, facebook, youtube, twitter) to communicate with each other. It is through these same technologies of how this cancer of extreme hate spreads.
    It is through these technologies that can create healthier communities, as well. To change this hate momentum to that of goodwill, there must be enough goodwill energy to turn this large ship around 180. These technologies, mentioned above, could be tools to help turn this massive ship.
    Fourth, can thousands of bar code pamphlets be air dropped where lots of the youth congregate? The youth would simply scan these pamphlets with a smart phone; which I believe most of the youth possess. Then after scanning these bar codes, a person's various accounts (cell phone number's texting account, youtube presentations, twitter messages and facebook posts) will be signed up for future jobs retraining opportunities on a daily basis. Then daily texting, facebook posts, and twitter messages would help reach these youth find jobs.
    Fifth, I believe the world political leaders should promote new economic and educational opportunities to prevent this cancer to spread even more. But how? The world community should organize a new Middle Eastern Marshall Plan. It could be funded by voting on a new bond issue; it could be paid back by future oil revenues and mining incomes. Then the youth could be trained then hired to rebuild their neighborhoods. Thus you help turn this hate momentum to that of goodwill. At the same time, you win the hearts and minds of the youth. Thus you keep this extreme cancer of hate from spreading even more.
    I believe the answer to this unrest can be solved through new economic opportunities in conjunction by using today's Internet technologies. The starting point will be to air drop those thousands of pamphlets...

    January 30, 2013 at 8:55 am | Reply
  13. alipax

    What a dishonest column.

    January 30, 2013 at 8:55 am | Reply
  14. hostdude99

    You'd do better with your argument if it was a lot less shrill and openly partisan. An objective observer CAN come to an honest AND completely different take on where Egypt is going without falling into ad hominem attacks as you do. I think iEgypt is going to fall into anarchy and civil war and no amount of money is going to be able to stop that. The west should keep its money instead of sending it to prop up the current Morsi government. Let the Egyptian people sort out who they want ruling them and if it leads to the disintegration of Egypt, so be it. Nothing is written in stone over the long haul of human history about what a country is or should be.

    January 30, 2013 at 9:40 am | Reply
  15. Hester

    Mr. Cook's argument would have been more persuasive had he refrained from angry insults and a distortion of what Spengler has written.

    January 30, 2013 at 10:29 am | Reply
  16. DD

    Spengler is a clear-eyed realist. He has been writing about Egypt's sad state of affairs for years. Cook's characterization of his article is a pathetic ad hominem attack with no basis in reality. Can't CNN do any better than this?

    January 30, 2013 at 11:00 am | Reply
  17. Hoosiernorm

    No one ever forgives you if your right.

    January 30, 2013 at 11:48 am | Reply
  18. Alex Watson

    This is a stupid and tendentious piece. There is nothing in Goldman's article to support the assertion that Goldman is "actualy hoping" for Egypt to fail. Rather, he is predicting that Egypt will fail and that efforts to prevent the failure will be futile.

    This piece also engages in ad hominem attack accusing Goldman of "pretentiously" using Spengler as a pen name.

    This author is a loser. I hope that Goldman's wrong, that Egypt turns around and thrives as a peace-loving, tolerant country. But, his arguments seem more cogent that Mr. Cook's.

    January 30, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  19. dgranovitz

    Mr. Cook ignores basic finance and what an empty stomach will drive a man to do.

    The basic finance part is that Egypt doesn't export enough to pay for their imports- and nobody considers their currency to be legit. That spells serious trouble unless they get some huge loans (free money gifts) from the IMF and the EU (!!). Mr. Cook's view is the same DEMOCRATIC party thinking that ignores basic BUDGETARY and fiscal matters, and instead preaches ideals that are on the right track but are short of addressing any real solutions.

    As for the hunger issue, what Spengler says just makes economic sense- if the price of bread doubles in a place where people live on $ 2 a day they are in serious trouble. People that are hungry will do anything to get food.

    January 31, 2013 at 1:02 am | Reply
  20. acraigs

    Mr. Cook has done the thinking community a wonderful service. By challenging and grossly misrepresenting the position of Mr. David Goldman (aka Spengler), he has encouraged others to find and read Mr. Goldman's analyses. I daresay that there will be far more converts to Mr. Goldman's line of thought than to anything Mr. Cook has written. Well done, sir!

    January 31, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
  21. Steve

    There is no revisionism in the case of Mr.Goldman. He PREDICTED the collapse of Mubarak's state and he absolutely always stated it was because, in large part, of a rise in food and fuel prices. He has kept to that. The Koran cannot make food grow faster and cheaper, therefore Morsi can do nothing -except probably make things much worse by destroying what is left of tourism. What seems more likely? The Egyptians, coming from a non-democratic tradition, rooted in Islam which itself is hostile to western ideas of government, suddenly deciding they needed a representative democracy or the Egyptian masses not even being to afford bread and beans and so pushed to the edge, challenged the State. Which makes more sense? Of course a member of the foreign policy industrial complex like Cook cannot admit he is wrong.But he is so wrong.

    February 3, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  22. Sean

    If I had to chose between the two I'd likely go with the one with a proven record of analysis and prediction. That'd be Spengler then – the Foreign Policy Establishment have pretty much missed and or messed up every call since Iran revolted in 1979. How much worse could Mr. Goldman be?

    February 4, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Reply

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