What was unexpected about Syria and Egypt?

Middle-East watchers have been surprised by the events in Syria and Egypt the last 2 years. The betting markets in 2011 and 2012 expected the collapse of the Syrian regime, but it didn’t happen. The West and most Al-Jazeera commentators thought the coup that deposed the Morsi-government was unsustainable and that some accommodation with the Brotherhood would have to be found. Even Israeli analysts, who by and large were against the Morsi-government, predicted that the new military regime could not survive. Both judgements seem incorrect so far: the Syrian regime looks safe and the Egyptian military junta is now as firmly in charge as ever. What did the watchers miss, ie what should we pay more attention to in the future that we didn’t see before?

And let me honest and say that I too was wrong on both counts: I have been making a point of giving predictions on many aspects of European and Middle Eastern politics for about 4 years now. I called lots of things right, from the chaos in Lybia, to the continued Greek bailouts in the EU, to the rise of the Egyptian brotherhood. Nearly everything, except for the developments in Syria and Egypt. As I said in December 2013, I thought in 2012 that the Americans would arm some part of the Syrian opposition and thus bring down the Assad regime. The betting markets scored it around 85% likely that Assad would be gone by the end of 2013. Similarly, in August of 2013 I thought there was no way the Egyptian army could so clearly assume total economic and political control (I thought this alongside 15 Al-Jazeera commentators at the time and, apparently, the Israeli intelligence community thought the military junta very fragile too). What did I/we fail to see?

In the case of Syria, it now appears that the missing ingredient was the psychology of the US president. As expected, the US state department did indeed want to pick a winner in the Syrian civil war. At least, Hillary Clinton claims to have argued for it strongly. But Obama vetoed it according to her, apparently not able to see the tremendous disruption that would ensue in the whole region of a failure to interfere. Obama might have been following his father’s belief that to interfere was neo-colonial and would only lead to more future trouble. Obama might have thought that others in the region, such as the Turks, would not tolerate any mayor disruption and take control. Obama might have simply miscalculated the brutality that the Syrian regime was willing to inflict on its own population, or the brutality of the many groups who were being sponsored by other countries. Whatever the reason, it seems Obama won the internal fight and kept the US out of it.

The muddled strategy of the US was pretty hard to foresee in 2011/2012 and it seems to have involved the particular psychology of the president, so on that one the main lesson is that some presidents mean what they say and can deliver when they say they don’t want to involve the US in foreign adventures. To see that coming would require an intimate level of knowledge of the actual psychology of lots of world-leaders, something that is not reasonable to expect from any individual observer because politicians and their entourage make a point of creating an appealing image of themselves which makes it nigh impossible to know what they are really like, so as a mis-predictions go there is little structural to be learned there: a particularly unusual draw of the statistical error term!

In the case of Egypt, what was missed seems more fundamental: no ‘random error’ in sight to explain what has happened. No single individual has behaved unusually, rather the Egyptian population has reacted differently from expected. At least, no one I have read called all the developments before they happened.

Before the Morsi-government came into power in 2012, the military had failed to quell two popular uprisings against its power, once leading to the overthrow of Mubarak and once leading to the old military establishment giving way to younger generals (the failed Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF). Following the analogy of European pro-democracy movements in the mid-19th century, it seemed that on an ideological level the battle for democracy was won and that restoring a military junta would lead to mass-opposition and couldn’t be sustained. The widespread popular support for the Muslim brotherhood and the many decades of discontent with the military ownership of much of the economic resources of the country surely would not fade by the way-side?

Well, fade it did, and spectacularly so. The new dictator was ‘voted’ in by a 96% ‘popular mandate’; thousands of Morsi supporters have been sentenced to death without any real evidence, or were simply gunned down in the streets in an apparently deliberate bloodbath to show who was boss; new provincial governors from the military establishment were installed almost overnight and the judiciary became a puppet of the regime. Worse, it is now clear that the supposed popular uprising against Morsi was to a large degree orchestrated in that the business part of the regime was deliberately creating shortages, electricity outages, and frustrating any reform that the Morsi government was pushing through. The popular discontent that was the excuse by the army to overthrow Morsi was thus only partially due to mismanagement by the Brotherhood, as it was also partially pre-cooked by the military establishment.

Whilst the Morsi-government was genuinely unpopular with the majority of the population, and many ordinary Egyptians seem happy to go along with the indiscriminate killing of Brotherhood supporters, the mystery remains why the general population has been so happy to accept a new and more brutal military dictatorship wherein even more of the economy is under control of the generals and there is even less hope for the millions of young unemployed.

One school of thought has it that the military never truly did relinquish control at all and that there was effectively a changing of the guard within the military: the story goes that the old guard, led by a Mubarak who wanted his son to take over, was purposely abandoned by the younger generals when it came to suppressing popular discontent. Whilst the older generals got the point and made way for the younger generals, the rest of the population was allowed to squabble and argue about the future of Egypt. Once firmly in charge though, so the story goes, the new military leadership systematically plotted the overthrow of the Brotherhood under circumstances that would make the military both popular and undisputed: the unpopularity of the Morsi regime was seen to be useful to the younger generals in order to secure support from the business community, from rich Muslim countries ideologically opposed to the Brotherhood (like the Saudis), and large parts of the population whom it had previously alienated in the failed attempts by the old generals to sow discord (such as via the oppression of the Kopts). In this version of things, the West was caught napping and completely blind to the real power balance in Egypt, leading it to protest at the coup and to demand negotiations with the Brotherhood. Western governments must have seemed like ignorant fools to the generals.

Jim Rose, to his credit, pushed this line of thought immediately after the military coup at the end 2013 on the Club Troppo blogs. I didn’t think it likely because the repression by the military (SCAF) in 2011/2012 (post-Mubarak but pre-Morsi) seemed pretty real and brutal to me, and the population weathered that oppression, making the ‘revolution’ real. The intergenerational dynamic within the military might have played a role, but the idea that some group of generals thought through everything in 2011 seems too much of a conspiracy theory to me: you can’t convince hundreds of business leaders and military leaders to let go of power for 2 years under the promise that you will get it back with interest 2 years later. Your co-conspirators wouldn’t believe you and would fear that what was given up wouldn’t come back. Also, it negates the real hold that the old generals had on the military: they had the torture chambers on full throttle in 2010/2011, so the supposed reluctance of the younger generals to dirty their hands was not that strong. So yes, the changing of the guard within the military would have given rise to a new group of generals who were happy to drag their feet a bit when it came to the interests of the elderly generals, but part of the story has to include the true disappearance of the belief in democracy within Egyptian society.

Another school of thought has it that the experience of the Morsi government was traumatic for the general population and that the population concluded that democracy was merely a recipe for trouble and that you were better off with a clear dictatorship than with the constant upheaval and conflict that you got if you had democracy: a disillusionment of the masses with the democratic experiment. Within this version, even the liberals and the many state bureaucrats who wanted change pragmatically recognised that real elections were not going to be won by competent and liberal political managers, and simply opted for the better of two evils: autocratic control by elected religious zealots or autocratic control by unelected economic parasites.

What ‘jars’ with this version are the indications that many in the population are not happy with the extreme repression of the Al-Sissi regime: it has a very slim current support base following the jailing of human rights campaigners, journalists, social media activists, students, and other members of the intellectual elite. The army didn’t just declare war on the Muslim Brotherhood, but on Egyptian civil society at large.

The quick acceptance of the new regime and hence the abandonment of the previous dreams of inclusion, jobs and bread for the poor, are puzzling. The regime is prepared to jail children and has now freed the hated former dictator. That regime seems to be able to survive without support from anyone but what they call the ‘deep state’, ie the security apparatus and the businesses associated with the army. Apart from the usual followers of fashion, the rest is just oppressed, but they dont just seem to be ‘living with it’, many seem to be surprisingly supportive.

So what is the fuller story? As far as I can ascertain, there are two competing stories that are roughly equally probable from my information set: one is that the military regime is riding its luck at the moment, creating internal enemies all over the place, surviving on foreign money and the desperation of its core supporters, with its seeming popularity being a mere front without real substance. Within that version of events, Egypt could be heading for a civil war – a real shake-down between the entrenched elite and the disenfranchised majority, with religious, ethnic, and social class fault-lines. This seems to be the scenario the Israeli security analysts are thinking about. From that point of view the surprising stability of the military junta is due to its willingness to use extreme violence, as well as having the generous backing of some Gulf states who are bankrolling the regime.

The alternative ‘somewhat probable story’ is that the economic realities in Egypt do not yet conform with a large support base for power-sharing and that the military regime is not as friendless as it may seem: that Egypt is (still) a winner-takes-all society at all levels whereby the identity of the persons at the top are relatively unimportant and where it has simply returned to normality after a brief experiment with a political power-sharing system that did not fit any local habits and conspicuously did not work out.

Things that would have to be true in this second story is that whilst some of the urban intellectuals may dream of Western-style democracies, on the ground, most jobs would still be allocated on a clientelist basis; almost nothing truly would get decided on a democratic basis in cities and villages; and the security apparatus would be a coalition of the winning local militias, each individual militia supported by the local power-brokers. The flirt with democracy was then a curiosity, born from a desperate youth and a momentarily complacent military junta that has now got its act together again and re-established the political system that fits the reality in Egypt better.

I honestly do not know enough about Egypt to say which of those two stories of the Egyptian population, repressed-but-biding-its-time or welcoming-the-return-of-the-masters, is true. Perhaps a third story explains what has happened in Egypt the last 2 years. Observations on the ground might make it possible to discern between those stories, so the main lesson I take from the all-round failure of pundits such as myself to foresee the dynamics within Egypt in the last 18 months is that observers had unrealistic views of local power habits in Egypt. This includes the Egyptian pundits I read at the time (including the 15 pundits Al-Jazeera paraded in August 2013), who all failed to foresee events as they happened and thus were either also oblivious of the strength of various factions and ideologies, or didn’t say what they really thought.

The reasons for the internal Egyptian dynamics thus remain mysterious to me. General historical knowledge and awareness of Egyptian political theories, and even of its internal debates, was not enough: something about Egyptian power culture is not captured by what is generally said about it.

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13 Responses to What was unexpected about Syria and Egypt?

  1. derrida derider says:

    Oh come on, Paul. do you seriously believe that having the USAF drop some bombs in Syria would have overthrown Assad while preventing the emergence of ISIL? Or are you saying he should have sent in the 101st Airborne? (Note it would have to be via Iraq, Israel or Turkey, any of which would have been extremely problematic in themselves). Yeah, sure, that would have restored peace and democracy to a grateful populace – not.

    As I wrote at the time (2012) there were simply no good options for the west in Syria – sometimes that happens. It seems to me Obama did the only possible thing – stop the chemical warfare, help the neighbours take in refugees, but otherwise wait for the dust to clear.

    ISIL shrewdly undermined that strategy by beheading a few US citizens and now the US (and us) are stuck to the tar baby. Watch the inevitable mission creep happen.

  2. conrad says:

    I agree with DD on this in terms of Syria, and indeed the broader Middle East now. Given the US don’t need anything there anymore since the discovery of shale oil, new ways of getting gas etc., I can’t see any reason they actually need to be there in any serious way (and presumably this has been obvious for long enough that the advisors of Obama would have told him that). Thus all that is left is the pro-war lobby, which might be pretty strong, but they presumably must be really up against it given the pretty poor historical record of the US in the last 40 years (and the fact that they can’t even stop leaks about torture coming out shows something is wrong with their PR). Alternatively, unlike DD, I don’t think we’ll see much mission creep because of this unless the Republicans fluke the next elections — bombing people from planes is one thing, getting soldiers killed is another, and people still remember Iraq/Afghanistan too clearly and can’t help but notice that the people in those countries are hardly even thankful for all that money and death.

    In terms of your Egyptian scenarios, I’m betting number one is the correct one. The reason I think this is because the Muslim Brotherhood is and especially tough opposition because they have broad support across many countries, and most importantly, they arn’t a bunch of crazies like ISIS or the Taliban who think that living in the stone-age is a good idea, and so they might well be able to run governments that are at least somewhat acceptable to people over the long term. This must have many corrupt dictators/monarchs in that region seriously worried, and hence presumably willing to spend huge amounts to try and break them down in places where they have got power like Egypt. Because of this, and because brute force power allows such a small number of people to remain in control of places these days, it’s hard to when things will really erupt again. This is especially so because the Muslim Brotherhood appears pretty patient, which is probably not a bad strategy if they can keep on slowly growing support.

  3. Paul Frijters says:


    Of course all the options on the table 2 years ago were bad, but yes, I do think better options were available than having 3 million refugees destabilize the region and lead to problems in Europe too. I did expect the US to at least organise an effort to arm a faction, train them, and get the regime to collapse. History went differently. I think its not just the Americans who are regretting their prior inaction.

    • conrad says:

      The Americans have a history of supporting groups that then hate them and use their weapons against them and others. One might include ISIS in that given that they helped arm the current Iraqi army, of which a large chunk then moved over to ISIS, weapons included. Perhaps they have begun to learn of the problems of doing this.

      Apart from that, when you say better outcomes could have been had Syria, this is with perfect hindsight. Even without hindsight, I think what you are basically implying is that if a regime change can be forced to happen within a certain amount of time, and those who are doing the changing are not too evil, then they should be supported to do it quickly. I don’t see how this solves any long term problems. especially for the Americans — you just replace one crony with the next, which is what I assume would happen in Syria. It is also not the same logic as your suggestions about Libya, where you didn’t seem to mind that one relatively bad group replaced the other (and hence why we shouldn’t have helped either).

      • Paul Frijters says:

        on both Libya, Egypt, and Syria, I was talking about what I expected to happen, not what I wanted to see happen. The outbreak of well-functioning representative democracy in that whole area is what I want to see happen.

        As to what I would have done in 2011? I would have seriously explored the idea of mercenary armies from outside the area to support a favored faction (perhaps with a plan to create more federalist countries or even have several smaller ones). It has surprised me that the West hasn’t cultivated a large foreign legion to do our bidding in such situations.

        • David Irving (no relation) says:

          I’m not sure funding external mercenaries would have worked: that’s basically what the US did in Afghanistan 30-odd years ago, after all.

        • paul frijters says:

          this is an area in which you don’t get certainties.

          I am more thinking of having a standing foreign legion, trained in a place like Scotland or Tasmania and made up of adventurous young men from poor countries willing to risk their lives for money. Sri Lankans, Russians, Ukrainians, Mongolians, Nepalese, Indians, etc. I can only presume that the West has stopped having such armies for reasons of political economy (the foreign legionaires don’t vote and there were few neutral countries in the Cold War to draw them from), but in terms of costs it seems cheaper than armies made up of domestics.

          It apparently costs over a million dollars to get one combat soldier in the field for 1 year. Surely we can do much cheaper than that with foreign legions?

    • derrida derider says:

      Paul, surely “arming and training a faction” would have been the worst option of all. Because the only factions that had ANY chance of overthrowing Assad were ISIL and its ilk, and as Conrad notes those people would quickly turn those weapons and training elsewhere, probably long before Assad was overthrown.

      The US did try and get Turkey to do what you suggest, but any factions remotely acceptable to either Turkey or its western backers were always going to be far too weak to either overthrow Assad or deal with the Sunni Islamists. All that could do (or did) was feed Islamist paranoia.

      • paul frijters says:


        it is easy to say life is difficult and criticize the ‘what would you have done’ plans of others by claiming they wouldn’t have worked out (something we will never know).

        Let’s be less on-the-fence, more forward looking and more constructive: what would you advocate the West does now in that neck of the woods? And what do you think will happen?

        • conrad says:

          I’m happy to see rather limited action saving smaller groups from the real crazies, and more serious action helping the Kurds protect themselves. I think the Kurds are special because they represent a very large group of people that are not aligned strongly with other groups and hence could potentially form their own state (or defacto state as is more or less the case now) without necessarily continuing the cycle of fighting and misery at least within their own territory (this would involve some concessions from Turkey).

          As for Syria, I also thought Assad would have been gone pretty quickly too, and I’m personally surprised he still hasn’t been assassinated, but I don’t see any great military role for Western countries. The basic problem is that you will just end up with bad replacing bad, and I can’t see this ever ending until there are better drawn borders, which presumably and unfortunately means large displacements of people. That might be a rather pessimistic view but it’s hard to see any end to it, and so if there is no end to it, all Western powers can really do apart from offer humanitarian aid now and then is just delay things (as was done in Afghanistan which will presumably go back into other hands), and they’re not even especially good at that compared to various authoritarian dictators who have been able to put a lid on things for much longer amounts of time at a far cheaper price.

          The other real problem with serious action from the West is that someone needs to fork out the money, and as the US taught us, it is really a huge amount of money — money which Euroland could never work out how to get from its states, and money which the US probably doesn’t want to sped anymore. Given this, I think the reality is that even if you wanted serious action, the most that could done for the money available is relatively limited (bombings, predator assassinations, and general harassment, rather than any serious efforts to change/help things) — probably not much more than now. This might not be a bad thing as you can keep some crazy groups in check, but even with this you still end up in a pretty poor default state and this is just something that has to be tolerated.

  4. Persse says:

    Given that militaristic intervening in Middle Eastern affairs since Ottoman Times, including its western and northern peripheries, has led to world wars, violent deaths for untold millions, endless atrocities, destruction of age old communities and the blighting of lives for millions for decades to come it is a little surprising to see advocated yet another intrusion guaranteed to kill a lot of innocents and exacerbate an already dire situation.

  5. Murph the Surf says:

    Paul and others- merry christmas /holidays and hope you all have a great new year.
    What chance a giant international conference to address the problems left by the actions of Sykes/Picot ?
    The Kurds need an area to be recognised and supported as being an independent homeland as do the Sunni tribes of Transjordan.
    All my reading indicates this area is populated with groups which identify with tribe first and foremost so the difficulty of building a couple of new nation states are huge but the legacy we have is just a running and enlarging sore.
    To then try and placate the displaced palestinians could then be addressed and a sort of compensation considered for them. The constant demand for right of return for millions of “never lived there” refugees is the constant deal breaker in negotiations with the other side.
    Leaving the Israelis to let the surrounding countries dissolve into a mass of endless feuds should be avoided and they will need to enter into a realistic set of
    These ideas all relate to Syria and its neighbours.
    I have a much more limited knowledge about Egypt but am surprised that what is considered the home of arab thought ,art and social developments has so easily opted for accommodation.
    On a personal note a friend of mine recently went there as a tourist, he and his wife thinking that waiting for a more peaceful time would mean never going.
    They didn’t think that there was much out of place except for the small number of tourists.
    On a cruise for 200 there were 10 passengers and he heartily enjoyed the buffets.
    The only time they were a little concerned was with the trip , done at some considerable speed between two armoured vehicles as they sped out to visit El Alamein to complete a day’s engagements.
    Overall though he recommended it to anyone thinking of going.

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