9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask

August 14, 2013

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Today's violence in Egypt is claiming dozens of lives, worsening the country's already dire political crisis and putting the United States in a quandary. But it's also yet another chapter in a years-long story that can be difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it. You might have found yourself wondering what Egypt's crisis is all about, why there's a crisis at all, or even where Egypt is located on the map.

It's okay, you can admit it: not everyone has the time or energy to keep up with big, complicated foreign stories. But this one is really important. Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: Egypt and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

1. What is Egypt?

Egypt is a country in the northeastern corner of Africa, but it's considered part of the Middle East. It's about the size of Texas and New Mexico combined and has a population of 85 million. Egyptians are mostly Arab and mostly Muslim, although about 10 percent are Christian. Egyptians are very proud of their history and culture; they are among the world's first great civilizations.

You probably know Egypt from its ancient pyramids and Sphinx, but Egyptians are still changing the world today. In the 20th century, they were in the forefront of the founding of two ideological movements that reshaped – are still reshaping, at this moment – the entire Middle East: Arab nationalism and Islamism.

2. Why are people in Egypt killing each other?

There's been a lot of political instability since early 2011, when you probably saw the footage of a million-plus protesters gathered in Cairo to demand that the president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, step down. He did, but that opened up a big power struggle that hasn't been anywhere near resolved. It's not just people at the top of the government fighting among one another, it's lots of regular people who have very different visions for where they want their country to go.

Today is the latest round in a two-and-a-half-year fight over what kind of country Egypt will be. Because regular people tend to express their political will by protesting (keep in mind that democracy is really new and untested in Egypt), and because Egyptian security forces have a long track record of violence against civilians, the "fight for Egypt's future" isn't just a metaphor. Often, it's an actual physical confrontation that happens on the street.

3. Okay, but why are they fighting today specifically?

Egyptian security forces assaulted two sprawling sit-in camps in downtown Cairo this morning and tried to disperse the protesters. The protesters fought back. So far, there have been dozens killed, a lot of them apparently civilians shot by live ammunition rounds used by security forces.

The protesters were there in support of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in a military coup in early July (the military is still in charge). Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group to which a number of the protesters in today's clashes belong. He was also the country's first democratically elected leader.

4. Well, if the military staged a coup against Egypt's first democratically elected leader, then all those Egyptians who protested in 2011 for democracy must be furious, right?

Actually, no. A whole lot of Egyptians, especially the liberal groups that led the 2011 revolution, were happy about the coup. A number of them were even calling on the military-led government to break up the largely peaceful pro-Morsi protest camp, even though there were children present and no one thought it would disperse without bloodshed.

There are two things to understand here. The first is that Morsi, and there's no sugar-coating this, did not do a good job as president. He had a difficult task, sure, but he really bungled the economy, which was already in free fall. He did precious little to include non-Islamists. And he took some very serious steps away from democracy, including arresting journalists and pushing through an alarming constitutional change that granted him sweeping powers.

But the second thing to understand is that Egypt is starkly divided, and has been for decades, between those two very different ideologies I mentioned. Many Egyptians don't just dislike Morsi's abuses of power, they dislike the entire Islamist movement he represents. What you're seeing today is a particularly bloody manifestation of that divide, which goes far deeper than liberals distrusting Morsi because he was a bad president.

5. Look, all this stuff about ideologies sounds complicated. Can you just tell me why Egypt is such a mess right now?

I hear you, but the thing about today's crisis is that, yes, it has do with basic stuff like the breakdown of public order and some really ham-fisted governance by the military. But it also has to do with a 60-year-old ideological conflict that's never really been resolved.

Stay with me for a moment: Back in the years just after World War II, Egypt was ruled by a king who was widely seen as a British pawn. Egyptians didn't like that. They also didn't like losing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and they wanted a way out of their long period of national humiliation. A lot of them were turning to a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood, which argued, and still argues, that Islamic devotion and unity are the ultimate answer. Their ideas, and their campaign for an Islamic government, are called Islamism.

A group of Egyptian military officers had a different idea. In 1952, they led a coup against the king. A charismatic lieutenant colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and promoted, as his answer to Egypt's problems, an ideology called Arab nationalism. It calls for secularism, progress, Arab unity and resistance against Western imperialism.

Both of those movements swept through the Middle East, transforming it. Arab Nationalists took power in several countries; the Syrian regime today is one of them, and so was the regime headed by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Islamism also expanded in many countries, and sprouted some violent offshoots. But the two movements prescribe very different paths to the Middle East's salvation, see themselves as mutually exclusive and have competed, at times violently, ever since. That is particularly true of Egypt, and has been since Nasser took power in 1952.

And that's why you're seeing many Egyptian liberals so happy about a military coup that displaced the democracy they fought to establish: Those liberals are closely linked to secular Arab nationalism, which means that they both revere the military and hate the Muslim Brotherhood, maybe even more than they crave democracy. Old habits die hard.

6. This is getting really complicated. Can we take a music break?

Good idea. Egyptian pop culture dominates the Arab world, in part because Egypt is so populous and in part because it's really good. Their most celebrated singer is Omm Kalthoum, whom Egyptians revere in the way that Italian-Americans do Frank Sinatra. Her recordings can sound a bit dated, though, so here is a cover by the contemporary singer Amal Maher:

7. So I see that lots of people are upset with the U.S. for not doing more to support democracy in Egypt. What's the deal?

The United States is a close political and military ally of Egypt and has been since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter engineered an historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that involved, among other things, enormous U.S. payouts to both countries as long as they promised not to fight any more wars. That also required the U.S. to look the other way on Egypt's military authoritarianism and its bad human rights record. It was the Cold War, and supporting friendly dictatorships was in style. And we've basically been stuck there ever since.

The Obama administration most recently drew withering criticism for refusing to call the military's July 3 ouster of the president a "coup." Doing so would likely require the U.S. to cut its billion-plus dollars in annual military aid to Egypt. That is also why you're seeing the White House appearing very hesitant about responding to today's violence with actual consequences.

Sure, the U.S. wants democracy in Egypt. But it wants leverage with the Egyptian government even more. That has been true of every administration since Carter. It was not actually until the Obama administration that the U.S. came to accept the idea that Islamists, who have been a big political force in Egypt for almost a century now, should play a role in governing. But they're sticking with the status quo; no one wants to be the administration that "lost" Egypt.

8. Wow, that's depressing. Surely someone wants Egypt to be a peaceful and inclusive democracy?

Not really. Most Egyptians are way too preoccupied with their ideological divide to imagine a government that might bridge it. Self-described liberals seem to prefer a secular nationalist government, even if it's the military regime in power today, as long as it keeps Islamists out. The Islamists, for their part, were more than happy to push out anyone who disagreed with them once they took power in 2012 through a democratic process that their leader appeared very willing to corrupt. Both movements are so big and popular that neither one of them can rule without at least attempting to include the other. But neither appears willing to do that.

When I asked Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, what he made of the liberals' embrace of the military coup and why he had started referring to them as "alleged liberal groups," he wrote as part of his response, "I think Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat are the only true liberals in Egypt."

9. Hi, there’s too much text so I skipped to the bottom to find out the big take-away. What happens next?

No one has any idea, but it looks bad. There are three things that most analysts seem to agree on. Any or all of these could prove wrong, but they're the most common, short-term predictions:

• The military-led government will keep cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and stirring up preexisting public animosity toward the group, both of which they've been doing since the 1950s.

• The U.S. will call for a peaceful and inclusive democratic transition, as Secretary of State John Kerry did this afternoon, but will refrain from punishing the Egyptian military for fear of losing leverage.

• The real, underlying problems -- ideological division and a free-falling economy -- are only going to get worse.

In the aggregate, these point to more violence and more instability but probably not a significant escalation of either. Medium-term, with some U.S. pressure, there will probably be a military-dominated political process that might stagger in the direction of a troubled democracy. Longer-term, who knows?

As the highly respected Egypt expert and Century Foundation scholar Michael Hanna told me recently, "Egypt might just be ungovernable."

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Max Fisher · August 14, 2013