After midday prayers on Wednesday, just about the time the army were heading over to the presidential palace to evict Mohammed Morsi, the last king of Egypt was laying to rest his aunt, Princess Fawzia, who died in Alexandria on Tuesday at the grand old age of 91. She was born in 1921, a few months before the imperial civil servants of London and Paris invented the modern Middle East and the British protectorate of Egypt was upgraded to a kingdom, and seven years before Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood.
A long life reminds us of how short history is: Princess Fawzia outlived the Egyptian monarchy, and the Nasserist fascism and pan-Arabism that succeeded it, and the doomed “United Arab Republic” of Egypt and Syria, and the fetid third-of-a-century “stability” of the Mubarak kleptocracy. And she came within 24 hours of outliving the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief, disastrous grip on power. In the days before her death, it was reported that 14 million people took to the streets of Egypt’s cities to protest against Morsi (and Obama and his ambassador Anne Paterson). If so, that’s more than the population of the entire country in the year Princess Fawzia was born. The Mubarak era alone saw the citizenry double from 40 million to 80 million, a majority of which live on less than two dollars a day. The old pharaoh was toppled by his own baby boom, most of whom went for Morsi. The new pharaoh was toppled by his own stupidity. The Muslim Brotherhood waited 85 years for their moment and then blew it in nothing flat.
And so the “Arab Spring” ricochets from one half-witted plot twist to another. Morsi was supposedly “the first democratically elected leader” in Egypt’s history, but he was a one-man-one-vote-one-time guy. Across the Mediterranean in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan could have advised him “softly softly catchee monkey” — you neuter the army slowly, and Islamize incrementally, as Erdogan has done remorselessly over a decade. But Morsi the “democrat” prosecuted journalists who disrespected him, and now he sits in a military jail cell (next to Mubarak’s?). And so the first army coup in Egypt since King Farouk’s ejection in 1952 is hailed as a restoration of the idealistic goals of the “Facebook revolution,” although General Sisi apparently has plans to charge Morsi with “insulting the presidency.” That’s not a crime any self-respecting society would have on its books — and anyway the Egyptian presidency itself is an insult to presidencies. Morsi’s is the shortest reign of any of the five presidents, shorter even than the first, Mohamed Naguib, who was booted out by Nasser and whose obscurity is nicely caught by the title of his memoir, I Was an Egyptian President.
In the 2011 parliamentary elections, three-quarters of the vote went to either the Muslim Brotherhood or their principal rivals, the Even More Muslim Brotherhood. So, statistically speaking, a fair few of the “broad-based coalition” joining the Coptic Christians and urban secularists out on the streets are former Morsi guys. Are they suddenly Swedish-style social democrats? Human Rights Watch reports that almost 100 women were subjected to violent sexual assault over four days in Tahrir Square, which suggests not. The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick argues that the coalition that’s supplanted the Muslim Brothers will wind up controlled by neo-Nasserite fascists.
For my part, I would bet Egypt’s fate will be largely driven by its fiscal ruin. Morsi is a good example of what happens when full-blown Islamic rule is put into effect in a country without the benefit of oil. He’s your go-to guy when it comes to ramping up the clitoridectomy rate, but he’s not so effective when it comes to jump-starting the economy. In February, the government advised the people to eat less and cut back the food subsidy to about 400 calories a day — which even Nanny Bloomberg might balk at. Amidst all the good news of the Morsi era — the collapse of Western tourism, the ethnic cleansing of Copts, the attacks on the Israeli embassy, sexual assaults on uncovered women, death for apostasy, etc. — amidst all these Morsi-era success stories, even a Muslim Brother has to eat occasionally. Egyptians learned the hard way that, whatever their cultural preferences, full-strength Islam comes at a price. Egypt has a wheat crisis, and a fuel crisis, and the World Food Program estimates that 40 percent of the population is suffering from “physical or mental” malnutrition. For purposes of comparison, when King Farouk was overthrown in 1952, Egypt and South Korea had more or less the same GDP per capita. Today Egypt’s is about one-eighth of South Korea’s.
Washington has spent six decades getting Egypt wrong, ever since the CIA insouciantly joined the coup against Farouk under the contemptuous name “Operation Fat F***er.” We sank billions into Mubarak’s Swiss bank accounts, and got nothing in return other than Mohammed Atta flying through the office window. Even in a multicultural age, liberal Americans casually assume that “developing countries” want to develop into something like a Western democracy. But Egypt only goes backwards. Princess Fawzia is best remembered in the Middle East as, briefly, the first consort of the late shah of Iran, whom she left in 1946 because she found Tehran hopelessly dull and provincial after bustling, modern, cosmopolitan Cairo. In our time, the notion of Egypt as “modern” is difficult to comprehend: According to the U.N., 91 percent of its women have undergone female genital mutilation — not because the state mandates it, but because the menfolk insist on it. Over half its citizenry subsists on less than two dollars a day. A rural population so inept it has to import its food, Egyptians live on the land, but can’t live off it.
Ninety years ago, Fuad I’s kingdom was a ramshackle Arab approximation of a Westminster constitutional monarchy: Even in its flaws and corruptions, it knew at least what respectable societies were supposed to aspire to. Nasser’s one-party state was worse, Mubarak’s one-man klepto-state worse still, and Morsi’s antidote to his predecessors worst of all — so far. You can measure the decay in a tale of two consorts. After she left the shah, Princess Fawzia served as the principal hostess of the Egyptian court. In tiara and off-the-shoulder gowns, she looks like a screen siren from Hollywood’s golden age — Hedy Lamarr, say, in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945). Sixty years later, no Egyptian woman could walk through Cairo with bare shoulders without risking assault. President Morsi’s wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, is his first cousin, and covered from head to toe. If you were a visiting foreign minister, you were instructed not to shake hands, or even look at her. If you did, you’d notice that the abaya-clad crone bore an odd resemblance to the mom of the incendiary Tsarnaev brothers. Eschewing the title first lady, she preferred to be known as “first servant.” Egypt’s first couple embodied only the parochial, inbred dead end of Islamic imperialism — what remains when all else is dead or fled.
This week, the Brotherhood was checked — but not by anything recognizable as the forces of freedom. Is it only a temporary respite? Certainly, in the age of what Caroline Glick calls “America’s self-induced smallness,” Western ideas of real liberty have little purchase in Cairo. Egypt will get worse, and, self-induced or not, America is getting smaller.