While international observers sometimes term recent developments in the Middle East “the end of Sykes-Picot” (somewhat ambitiously using that 1916 bilateral French-British agreement as a shorthand for the entire post-World War One settlement in the Middle East), it is clear that claim contains substantial exaggeration. Most borders and states established nearly a century ago are very much intact. But something has collapsed: the post-1960s order in the region in which most Middle Eastern regimes gave deference to each other in internal affairs—and most extra-regional actors did the same. In addition, the ability of external powers to set the terms of regional diplomacy—always a bit more apparent than real—now seems to have evaporated as well. The resulting tumultuous nature of regional politics has reverberated throughout the globe and seems no sign of abating any time soon. In this dangerous atmosphere, the post-2013 Egyptian regime is able to present itself domestically and internationally as a bulwark of stability. To Egyptians, it portrays its harsh repression as necessary to combat domestic threats and prevent Egypt from lapsing into chaos and civil strife like Libya, Yemen, and Syria. And to friendly regimes, it is able portray itself as an ally in the battle against extremism and disorder. In fact, however, the real trajectory in Egypt is in the same direction as the rest of the region. it is moving far more slowly, to be sure, and will likely never dissolve into the murderous anarchy characteristic of a few societies in the region. but the very policies which its rulers say rescue Egypt from that fate actually aggravate the negative trends.
A Regional Order Sustained
The regional order that prevailed since the 1960s was remarkably stable even though it allowed some conflicts to fester and seemed deeply unjust to many actors. Arab regimes gave tremendous deference to each other in internal affairs, and the ideological battles of the previous generation (over nationalism, imperialism, socialism, monarchism, and republicanism) were buried. Regimes went their separate ways on the Palestinian issue; when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 it was initially ostracized but then welcomed back into the Arab fold over the following decade. Globally, the Cold War set the context for much regional diplomacy, with an American-Soviet rivalry dividing the region but not undermining the regional order; with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States stepped into a predominant role, organizing collective security against Iraq, monopolizing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, and constructing a series of bilateral security relationships that underpinned the regional order. There were challengers and challenges to this order, to be sure—radical Palestinian groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the collapse of Lebanon into civil war in 1975; the Iranian revolution and its ideological message in 1979; the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990; a series of domestic Islamist challenges in the 1990s metastasizing into a radical umbrella challenge by al-Qa`ida by the end of the decade; and the formation of a self-styled “resistance front” (including Iran, Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine) in the 2000s. But each challenge was turned back or contained by existing regimes. To call this an “order” should not obscure its failures: it was unable to address some of the region’s underlying problems: the festering Palestinian issue; deepening divides over religion and politics; the problems associated with rentier economics and socialist legacies; and a deep and growing popular alienation from unaccountable structures of governance. But for decades it was able to obscure these issues or prevent them from beginning strong threats to prevailing arrangements.
A Regional Order Unmade
That order began to come undone in the early 2000s. The American invasion of Iraq marked an important shift in many ways: it aimed at changing a regime rather than containing it; it then moved beyond regime change to state dismantlement; it led Iraqis to fall back on sectarian, ethnic, and local loyalties to help navigate the resulting disorder—a development that made it difficult to reassemble any coherent state; it unleashed subnational actors and fostered the militarization of the society; and it drew in regional states and internationalized Iraqi politics. But perhaps just as important, it marked an audacious overreach that had the inevitable effect of undermining domestic American support for an ambitious regional role and revealed the American sponsorship of the regional order to be far less imposing than many had thought. The uprisings of 2011 struck another deep blow to that order. The accumulated governance grievances that had been suppressed, ignored, and parried for more than a generation suddenly burst forth in the form of mass protests against existing regimes. The international situation—American decline, moribund Arab-Israeli peace process, disorder and sectarianism in Iraq—were not the primary spark to the uprisings, although those developments did underscore the degree to which existing regimes seemed unable to manage any international challenge. But the primary failures were internal—unaccountable governance, cronyism and corruption that ensured that even prosperous times would make many feel excluded, abusive security services, and senior officials (especially rulers) who seemed to treat public authority as personal property. What was remarkable about the uprisings of the spring of 2011 was not that there was widespread discontent—that was visible many years before for anyone who cared to look but that so many were willing to act on their discontent. And it was a surprise as well in some countries that important state actors were unable or unwilling to prop up regimes that ran into trouble. The bulk of regimes in the region survived the upheavals of 2011. But three societies (Libya, Yemen, and Syria) dissolved into civil conflict; one society (Iraq) reversed whatever limited steps it had taken toward reintegration; and some societies (most notably Bahrain but eventually Egypt as well) sank into deeper repression and authoritarianism.
The Regional Disorder
The set of international and domestic developments have undermined the old regional order without replacing it with a new one. The current environment shows four features, none of which individually (and certainly not all of which collectively) can really be called an order. First, international actors are exhausted and are unable to organize the region in any meaningful way. Their ability to do so was always exaggerated but now their weakness is on full display. But the disorder goes beyond the end of a unipolar order. What is striking is not just the multipolar nature of the region but the near total absence of structures for inclusive regional diplomacy. During the height of the Cold War, the competing blocs had a variety of structures that allowed them to conduct diplomacy even of an adversarial nature. Diplomatic relations were never cut. Yet in the Middle East today, each international crisis requires tremendous efforts just to construct a multilateral forum in which parties can meet face-to-face, much less address the issue in question. The number of important actors who will not enter the room containing an adversary makes even such efforts inevitably incomplete. Second, the mutual deference of existing regimes to each other has been replaced by a pattern in which regimes reach across borders shamelessly to promote forces deemed friendly to their interests. It is not only the failed or collapsed states of the region that are attractive targets for cross-border interference; after all, it is not surprising that where internal turmoil beckons various regimes to try to put a thumb on the scale and support their allies. But such meddling takes place even in established states like Egypt where various Gulf regimes (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar) have sought to give strong support to rulers that they liked. Third, sectarian concerns—secondary in international politics and dampened domestically in many (though not all) countries for decades—are now prominent and cross borders; so do ideological divides (chiefly over religion and politics). It is not that sect and religion were irrelevant to regional politics prior to the current decade, but they were not always politicized. In domestic politics, states had powerful official religious establishments that purported to guide religion for the society; recognized minority groups would generally be accorded the ability to have their own structures (houses of worship, family law). Some religious structures—such as Shi`i religious scholarly networks—might cross borders but the majority of those involved stayed away from political topics. For the most part, religious concerns were regulated and dominated by states and observed international borders when it came to political issues. That is not the case today, with the rivalry between Sunni and Shi`i approaches in particular being played out throughout the region. Fourth, states are still very much powerful actors in regional politics—the sectarian and ideological divides, though real and growing, do not supplant the actions of states but are indeed deployed by them. Iran and Saudi Arabia, two of the most influential actors in regional politics, align their support for groups in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in sectarian terms; and various orientations toward the Muslim Brotherhood (enmity or sympathy) have been tangled up in international disputes. In the recent coup attempt in Turkey, for instance, the attitude of regional actors and their attitude toward the coup and its suppression, were very much colored not simply by the evaluation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regional policies but also by domestic considerations (so that Egyptians lined up on Turkish politics on the basis of their views of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—sheltered by Turkey—and President al-Sisi—who led a coup overthrowing the Brotherhood). States have not been made irrelevant, but they pursue policy through rather than around sectarian and ideological divisions.
In this perilous regional environment, Egypt’s post-2013 regime offers itself to its own people and to the international community as an exception, even a shield. The country’s rulers put forward a picture of a democratic system backed by the majority of the country’s citizens. After years of turmoil, stability is held to be restored. The struggle is not easy nor is it over, according to the official line. Egypt’s repression is necessary to prevent the country from descending into civil war like Libya and Syria; it is based on the same response to terrorism that is practiced by established democracies; it is restoring the authority of state institutions to guide the country toward economic prosperity; and it makes Egypt a critical partner in any efforts designed to stave off chaos and violence in the region. Such a portrait is appealing but three years after the ouster of the Brotherhood, it is even less persuasive than it was when it was first developed in the early days of the new regime. The regime’s credentials are not democratic except in the limited procedural sense that the country’s president was elected in an unfair election and a parliament was elected in accordance with a set of rules that limited political space and discouraged parties from emerging. Egypt’s intellectual scene is lively but constricted; its political scene is circumscribed indeed as most organized political forces are barred from operating freely and from influencing public policy. The country seems to have passed back into a period of state-led growth in which the private sector is allowed to operate but the military takes the leading role and the government shows fear of social discontent by propping up subsidies and the exchange rate in a manner that it knows is unsustainable over the long term but has no real strategy for correcting. A series of small-scale and local challenges by dissident groups, some of them violent, have been treated as a security threat, again with the military and security agencies taking the leading role in addressing what appears to be an escalating battle. But the security effort is undertaken without a serious political effort to address the grievances of populations that may provide some sheltering environment for the rebels, at least in Sinai. The reaction to bad news—forbidding any press discussion that questions the official line—manages the domestic fallout for the short term but does nothing to correct the situation over the longer term. State institutions—most notably the security services—seem to operate without oversight or accountability. The country’s political, security, and economic trajectory therefore all seem pointed in a negative direction. Slow economic deterioration, domestic discontent, and ineffective governance are hardly corrected; instead they are aggravated by the regime’s policies and practices. The leadership can claim with accuracy that it has not allowed the full collapse of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. But it offers not sound governance, stability, and prosperity but slow decline and perhaps eventually broader unrest. Egypt is moving in the same direction as the rest of the region; it is small comfort to note that it is doing it at a glacial rather than breakneck pace.