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Customer Review

on November 1, 2008
John R. Bradley's 'Inside Egypt' is a journalistic account of contemporary Egypt. It is interesting but hardly surprising. At great length, using multiple examples, it tells us what we already knew about Egypt. Egypt is a poor nation, becoming more radically Islamist each passing day, governed by a corrupt, incompetent and selfish regime which strangles reform and resists change.

For the most part, Bradley eschews analysis for reporting, but what he reports about is depressingly self evident given the general outline. Many of the chapters come with self explanatory titles - "Torture" and "Corruption", for example. Minorities, whether the Bedouin (in Sinai) or the Copts (in Egypt proper), are abysmally treated.

There is an interesting chapter, euphemistically titled "Lost Dignity", about the Egyptian sex industry in its various forms, particularly in that of the "marriage" of Old Western ladies to younger Egyptians, and of male prostitution. It is possibly the most penetrating part of Bradley's book, because it shows that even sex work is shaped by the cultural and religious beliefs of the Egyptians. Even as they make their livelihood from sex, Egyptians maintain a semblance, no matter how twisted, of traditional gender roles and sexual mores.

But for Westerners, most interesting is the political agenda. And Bradley is in a catch 22: his instinct, as summarized by a blurb contribution from the managing editor of Foreign Affair, is to "love [the] country but hate [the] regime". Bradley's sympathies are clearly with the Egyptian people, and against Hosni Mubarak and his government. But as Bradley acknowledges, the Egyptian people are considerably more anti-Western than the regime. The most popular Middle East leaders are Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Mahmood Ahmadinejad, the radical president of Iran (p. 89). As Bradley puts it, "The sickness... runs not just through the system but through the whole of society" (p.145).

The Egyptian people are against America, and who can blame them? Their dictatorial government is an American dependency. Being subordinate to the United State is an affront to the Egyptian's pride; Being repressed by America's agent is a legitimate grievance.

And of course, the Mubarak regime encourages the antagonism. It allows the fundamentalist Muslim Brothers opposition some freedom, while suppressing the secular democratic opposition. This has several advantages - it creates the illusion of openness, gives the Islamists a reason to cooperate with the state, and most importantly, offers leverage against the United States.

Because, as Bradley acknowledges, in the Middle East, the United States' foreign policy is aimed at attaining two mutually exclusive goals: democracy and stability. But these can not be achieved simultaneously. If America were to pressure Egypt to democratize, it would undermine Egypt, and thus the entire Middle East.

(The fact that Bradley identifies the trade off is significant in and of itself. Some Middle East expert think you can have you cake and eat it too. See for example Amitai Etzioni's Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy)

Between stability and democracy, Bradley is firmly on the side of the latter. "Washington must think long term" (p. 227).

But as John Maynard Keynes reminded us, in the long run, we're all dead. What Bradley does not stress is that Egypt is a spectacular case of successful American diplomacy. For a relatively cheap 2 billion U$ annually, America has got the traditional Arab powerhouse as a staunch allay. For over thirty years, Egypt has been in peace with Israel; It is a moderate force in Arab politics and an ally in the so-called "War on Terror".

This comes at the expense of the Egyptian people, who live under a brutal dictatorship. But America's foreign policy is aimed at promoting the welfare of Americans, not Egyptians. And even if America wanted to do something to democratize Egypt, it can't. Pressure on the regime would only make Egypt uncooperative; Egypt would give a freer hand to its local al-Qaeda supporters and diminish cooperation in the struggle against terrorism. Egypt's president would make anti American statements and increase his popularity. And if America were to gamble with its national security interests in pursuit of Egyptian democracy, it would risk an Iranian style Islamist revolution in Egypt, which would make Egypt's liberal forces nostalgic to Mubarak's autocracy.

The only reason America should change course in its Egyptian policy is if changed circumstances require rethinking that policy. Bradley's most bizarre notion is that Egypt is nearing the end of a 30 years cycle of relative unrest, and is facing a period of tribulations like the ones it faced in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s. This is mistaking a coincidence for a pattern.

A more likely source of instability in the regime is the possibility of a succession crisis when Hosni Mubarak (aged eighty), departs the scene, and his son Gamal takes over. But recent generational changes in Morocco and in Syria went smoothly enough, and the presidency moved between Egypt three post revolution presidents (Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak) without incident.

History tells us that dictatorships, no matter how strong they look, are brittle things. They may collapse without warning. Yet in a region full of extreme and dangerous enemies, Egypt's dictatorship, against the wishes of Egypt's people, remains an American ally. Supporting a pro-American autocracy in Egypt is a necessary evil.
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