On September 12, 2012 the alliance between Egypt and the United States appears to have officially faded away. Its end was not surprising. Under Sadat and then Mubarak, Egypt became an American ally and one of the biggest recipients of American aid after Israel. Then the Pharaoh was swept away by the Arab spring and Egypt began its messy transition to democracy. The much ballyhooed freedom agenda of George W. Bush withered away when it became clear that the popular franchise would not magically bring friends of the United States to power.
The transition in Egypt has been interesting to say the least. Pharaoh Mubarak was forced out of power after popular protests, but the departure (like Tunisia) was stage managed by the army. The Egyptian generals were showing signs that what they would live with was a “managed” democracy like Turkey until the 1990s and Pakistan today. The civilians could rule within the margins set by the men in khaki. If so, that belief was misplaced. In August, the newly elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi – a former leader of the Muslim brotherhood – fired his military chiefs and nullified their constitutional declaration that gutted his office.
So far Morsi has not ended the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, but it is clear that relations with Egypt had changed. The embassy attacks highlight just how much. The Libyan attacks were met by apologies of the Libyan government and were condemned by the government and people. Indeed, the Libyan attacks appear to be more of a planned attack than triggered by the anti-Islam film.
In contrast the response from Morsi for a failure of his government to honor its diplomatic obligations has been….crickets. For domestic consumption Morsi has ordered his embassy in Washington to try to make the pointless effort to prosecute the twits who made the movie that was used as an excuse for the riots. David Frum speculates that Morsi is using this to solidify his power base. Notably, President Obama’s statement today pointedly did not mention the Egypt attacks but evidently has sent the message to Egypt that it has the obligation to protect American diplomatic establishments. This evening the Egyptian police dispersed the crowds without violence.
This evening Obama also gave an interview that made a now obvious point. Egypt is not an ally, but is not an enemy either. Clips of the interview from the Rachel Maddow show below:
This is a huge strategic change in the Middle East. Left unsaid (unless it is in the full interview to be aired tomorrow) is what happens to the huge aid package that went to the former ally. The conduct of Morsi in the last couple of days is not likely to endear his government to Congress – where many on the right are already fulminating at the abandonment of the dictator to allow the election of Islamists to office. Will the drying up of American military aid encourage Morsi and the khaki clad men who remain in line for now to temper their actions? It is unlikely that the Obama administration would use this to encourage a Latin American style coup and it should not. It complicates the strategic situation for Israel, which is already facing the possible replacement of the devil it knows in Syria with chaos. It makes Netanyahu’s obsession of a war with Iran even crazier.
Ultimately, I am not upset about the end of an alliance forged with an unpopular dictator rather than with a government backed by public support. The former is inherently unstable and makes the United States look away from abuses that tarnish our reputation by association. The latter are generally more enduring. Far too many foreign policy hawks pine for the client state relationships that existed in the Cold War. They gave a type of negative stability but cost America in the long run. Other countries have interests too and they will not always align with ours. That is the basic principle that in coming years will guide American relations with India, Brazil, South Africa and other countries with whom we will have warm relations without a NATO style alliance. In the long run it is a healthier and more mature approach.
The fall of the Pharaoh raises the question whether the Middle East tumult will subside, or if this is the beginning of an avalanche not seen since Eastern Europe in 1989. While it is easy to get carried away, regime change in Tunis and Cairo occurred because the men with the guns did not act against the protesters. As Iran showed a couple of years back, unfortunately that is not always true. When the generals obey their masters and when the grunts obey the generals, democratic hopes come to a bloody end.
It is also still not clear whether Tunis and Cairo were soft coups, where the public face of the regime changed but little else did. However, some local despots do need to be more scared than others. On cue the days of rage have commenced in three of the most vulnerable autocracies in the middle east.
The protests in all three countries already highlight one huge difference with Tunisia and Egypt. These autocracies are willing to spill blood. The men with guns and batons will have to refuse to take orders for these tyrants to fall or give way. The list above is also not exhaustive. Yemen, Jordan, Sudan and to a lesser extent Syria (where you have to frankly be foolhardy to publicly protest) have faced protests. Then there is the longest ruling autocrat in the region who has seen his fellow dictators on either side of his country fall. The recent cables leaked by Wikileaks revel how the 41 year regime of Muammar Gadaffi has been tarnished by his licentious progeny. Even Libya may be facing the unthinkable, public protests.
It is very likely that no more dominoes will fall this go around, but the yearnings for freedom and respect on the Arab street will be harder to bottle up again. And if one can dream, if Egypt actually manages to create a constitutional democracy the clock will start running out for the remaining autocracies in the region. The 1990s saw the demise of assorted military juntas in Latin America. Even though the Chavezs and Ortegas are threatening democracy in the region, by and large military rule is passe in the region. Lets hope this decade sees similar change from the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent, and beyond.
As a final note, do notice how quiet the murderous thugs of Al-Qaeda have been at the sight of the Pharaoh being toppled without suicide bombers.
Talk about timing…barely 30 minutes after blogging about Mubarak refusing to go, the tired old dictator leaves. An inspiring moment for Egypt and the World. Hopefully this does not signify an attempt to perpetuate the Nasserite military dictatorship. Suleiman can help by keeping his promise to repeal the 30 year emergency law and not running for reelection. May the Ayatollahs be next.
That was anti-climactic. With Egypt convulsing from the after-shocks from the Maghreb triggered by the self-immolation of a frustrated Tunisian fruit seller, rumors of Hosni Mubarak’s impending departure spread rapidly. And then Mubarak doused cold water on those hopes with a vague rambling speech (blaming foreign influences) announcing that he was delegating unspecified powers to his man Friday, new Vice President Omar Suleiman. The crowd’s displeasure is evident in the video below, particularly at the 12:30 mark where Mubarak tries to identify himself with the young people out in the streets.
Suleiman on whom the Obama administration has placed its wishful hopes for a transition to democracy the proceeded to rile the crowd by asking the protesters to go home. The Egyptian army which has played a two faced role in this crisis has endorsed Mubarak’s plan, and Mubarak does seem to have handed some powers over to Suleiman.
So what now? Nobody knows. The White House was evidently blindsided by Mubarak’s defiance and has limited leverage on the situation. Ultimately this is a crisis that must be resolved by the Egyptians. Washington’s efforts should be focussed on preventing the army from initiating the type of bloody crackdown that crushed Iran’s Green Revolution two years ago.
With no obvious opposition candidate in the wings, Egypt faces a period of prolonged uncertainty and probably instability. A big concern in Egypt is a silent military coup, of the type that may have overcome Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Suleiman is deeply tied to Mubarak’s repressive regime and in his 70s is unlikely to be a long term solution in any case.
Concerns have been raised that elections could result in the Muslim Brotherhood to power. If the United States truly believes its pretensions of being the “defender of the free world”, it needs to come to grips with the reality that democracy can result in unfriendly governments. For too long Washington has supported autocrats like Mubarak who provided “stability” in the form of stagnation and decay of their countries institutions, economies and societies. After some hesitancy the Obama administration seems to be veering towards support for a democratic transition. Here’s hoping that the Egyptians can pull it off (and by their example reignite Iran’s Green Revolution).
Science (and DNA testing) have now answered some of the mysteries behind King Tut. Tutankhamun (who started his reign as Tutankhaten) is a fairly obscure and unimportant Pharaoh. But he is one of the only one whose tomb was discovered nearly intact (perhaps because of his lack of importance and possibly from the loyalty of a successor). The opulence of his tomb catapulted him into public imagination far beyond what the accomplishments (if any) of the boy-king justified.
And yet not much is known about the boy/man himself. He ruled during the period when the Egyptian New Kingdom under the XVIIIth dynasty was at the peak of its opulent splendor but facing religious turmoil. He succeeded the enigmatic Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) who drew the wrath of the priestly class by transferring royal patronage from Amun to the sun god Aten (which has also drawn a lot of attention for alleged monotheism). The relationship between the two Pharaohs (an there relationship to the even more obscure Smenkhkare who was co-regent and perhaps the brief successor of Akhenaten was not known.
Tutankhamun was assumed to be Akhenaten’s son, but his mother was not known. Most historians doubted that his mother was the famous Nefertiti and speculated that it was a minor wife of Akhenaten called Kiya. The damnatio memoriae that appears to have been inflicted on Akhenaten in the religious reaction following his death (when Tuthankhaten morphed into Tutankhamun) may be to blame for this.
But now DNA technology has lifted the veil. King Tut was likely not murdered by his vizier and successor Ay, but was instead a frail product of inbreeding who suffered from a bone disorder and likely died from an infection from a broken leg aggravated by malaria. See link. Also see here and here. Akhenaten has been identified as his father and Amenhotep III and his chief queen Tiye as his grandparents. His only grandparents.
Tutankhamun’s mother was Akhenaten’s full sister. There are no records indicating that Nefertiti was related to Akhenaten which likely rules her out. So far the identity of the mother is not known. This also makes Tut’s wife Ankhesenamun known to be a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti his half-sister.
Royal inbreeding was very common in Egyptian history. The royal family being considered divine a “pure” bloodline was expected to be passed down. This occurred elsewhere (including for example with the Incas) and the Egyptians appear to have passed it along to their Persian and Greek conquerers. While sibling marriage faded away after the rise of the Roman Empire, royal families until this century were plagued by the effects of inbreeding.
The DNA testing has also confirmed that Akhenaten was not androgynous in appearance from some medical condition as the artwork of his reign appears to suggests. The unusual renderings of the Pharaoh and his family appear to have been made for artistic and religious reasons.
Deciphering a 3300 year old mystery was made possible by the Egyptian habit of mummifying the dead. There seems to be a pattern of solving ancient Egyptian mysteries of late. See previous blog post. Maybe the trifecta of finding the tomb of Alexander the Great is round the corner.
A 2,500 year old mystery based on a Herodotus story sometimes dismissed as a fable may have been solved. The Persian Emperor Cambyses II has generally not received good press from historians. Some of it comes from the difficulty of being the successor of Cyrus the Great, a man who turned a nation of goatherders subject to the Median Empire into what was the largest empire the world had ever seen. Media, Babylon and Lydia with the famed wealth of Croesus fell before Cyrus. Cambyses finished the job by conquering the last remaining empire of antiquity, Egypt.
This is when things started to go south and the legend of the lost army begins. After his initial victory Cambyses failed to subdue Kush in the south and had to give up his plan to attack Carthage because his Phoenician subjects refused to fight their ethnic kin. The frustrated emperor decided to vent his rage at the Oracle of Amun located in the Siwa Oasis which refused to recognize him as Pharaoh of Egypt. According to Herodotus the army of 50,000 disappeared in a sandstorm. An army that size generally leaves behind some traces. But for 2,500 years nothing was found. If true, this solves one of the two major location mysteries of Ancient Egypt (the other is the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great which disappears from the historical record in the early third century AD).
To sum up on poor Cambyses, he came to a sticky end. Forced to leave Egypt to deal with the revolt of his brother Bardiya, he died suddenly. His eventual successor Darius I would say it was suicide. Darius, a cousin, who usurped the throne from Bardiya and ruled successfully for 36 years lavished a lot of effort in blackening the reputations of the sons of Cyrus. Cambyses comes down as a bloodthirsty and moody tyrant who initiated a tradition of royal incest in violation of Persian norms. Bardiya suffers a worse fate. The man deposed by Darius was dismissed as an impostor, a Magi priest named Gaumata, who killed the real son of Cyrus. All of this justified the bloody path of Darius to the throne, sealed by his marriage to the daughters of Cyrus. As is often the case, the winner got to write history. In this case the victor inscribed his version in stone.