Egypt by Robert Springborg

The Blurb On The Back:

Egypt is one of the few great empires of antiquity that exists today as a nation state.  Despite its extraordinary record of national endurance, the pressures to which Egypt is currently subjected and which are bound to intensify are already straining the ties that hold its political community together, while rendering the task of governing it ever more difficult.

In this timely book, Robert Springborg explains how a country with such a long and impressive history has come to find itself in this parlous condition.  As Egyptians become steadily more divided by class, religion, region, ethnicity, gender, and contrasting views of how, by whom, and for what purposes they should be governed, so their rulers become ever more fearful, repressive, and unrepresentative. Caught in a downward spiral in which poor governance is both cause and consequence, Egypt is facing a future so uncertain that it could end up resembling neighbouring countries that have collapsed under similar loads.  The Egyptian “hot spot”, Springborg argues, is destined to become steadily hotter, with ominous implications for its peoples, the Middle East and North Africa, and the wider world. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Robert Springborg is a retired Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and in this fascinating, informative and profoundly depressing book that’s clearly written and easy to follow he describes the structural factors that have played their part over the last 70 years in driving Egypt to the point of crisis where division is rife and government more repressive, inefficient and authoritarian.

Springborg structures the book around the following four key areas.

The first area is a historical summary of the rise of Egypt following the 1952 coup and what it meant for the traditional capacities of the state (specifically how that capacity rose and fell).  Springborg does well at setting out the state of development of Egypt’s infrastructure, including its railway network, strength of its main institutions and the overall sense of community that meant that people (whether Coptic, Muslim or Jewish) tended to regard themselves as Egyptian first and foremost and how this has been corroded over the subsequent years (particularly stark are the comparisons with countries such as South Korea, which had lagged behind Egypt but are now far, far ahead).  Also helpful is his summary of the Tahrir Square uprising against Mubarak in 2011 and how the military (including Sisi) reacted against it, biding their time and using the Muslim Brotherhood to counter the diverse groups behind the uprising and then ultimately, seize control from the Brotherhood (a strategy that had also worked in the past).

The second area delves deep into the nature of the military government to explain why it has failed the Egyptian state including a look at the “deep state” and how it controls the elements of the state and manipulates the political and civil elements of society to remain in power. For me, this was the most interesting section of the book as Springborg picks apart the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the parliament to demonstrate how each has been neutered and intimidated by the military, which seeks to centralise more functions to itself. Particularly interesting was the account of institutional “stove piping” that goes on, which prevents co-operation or interaction between departments and groups but the section on the judiciary is particularly heart breaking, especially as there appear to be judges who continue to try to challenge the regime.

Springborg goes on to develop the themes by showing how the Deep State then interacts with Egypt’s religious groups – Christians and Muslims (particularly sinister is the move to regulate mosques) and the rise and fall of Islamist and jihadi groups (with the military again seeking to use those struggles to reinforce its own power, even as the rise of attacks hurts Egypt’s tourism).  As someone who followed the news in Egypt following the Tahrir Square uprising, the sections summarising the relationship between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood was very interesting as Springborg sets out how each uses the other and the Brotherhood persistently underestimates its ability to bring the military under its control.

The third area reviews the intensifying crises within the Egyptian economy and the strains being placed on its population (including through high unemployment, issues with agriculture and business efficiency).  Springborg describes this with a bleak efficiency and it’s the most academic section with references to developmental models (and how they’ve failed) and how the physical and environmental infrastructure has slowly been allowed to decline (most worryingly in the realm of irrigation and agriculture) and how Egypt’s rulers have sought to play off western governments against Russia and Saudi, and how that has proved to be less successful as oil money dries up and the US has itself seen a change in governmental approach.

The final area then pulls the preceding points together to assess 3 scenarios for Egypt’s future but to be honest I was a little disappointed by the brevity of this.  Sprinborg postulates that either Egypt will be able to struggle on as is, aided by good luck (e.g. defeating the Sinai insurgency, the discovery of new hydrocarbon reserves and a rise in external support from Gulf states and competition between Trump, Russia and China to provide funds to win influence). Alternatively there could be political change within the Deep State with the military replacing Sisi in a pre-emptive coup or reformers sweep out both Sisi and the military command and reach out to rebuild civilian-led government (although Springborg admits that either option rests on political pressure building to the point where the Deep State feels that it has to act and given that this book was released before the election that saw Sisi returned to power and his subsequent moves to consolidate it). Finally Springborg suggests the possibility of breakdown of the country either into a Syria/Libya scenario if Islamist opposition unites and grows in strength or a second Tahrir Revolution that provokes a violent military response that in turn splits the military and spirals downhill or the collapse of the overall system into a failed state as the economy finally succumbs at the same time as Islamists strengthen their uprising.

All in all, I thought this was a fascinating book that really expanded my knowledge of the country and the forces within it and as such I think that if you have an interest in what’s happening in this part of the world, then this is a must-read.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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