9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Today’s violence in Egypt is claiming dozens of lives, worsening the country’s already dire political crisis and putting the United States in a quandary. But it’s also yet another chapter in a years-long story that can be difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it. You might have found yourself wondering what Egypt’s crisis is all about, why there’s a crisis at all, or even where Egypt is located on the map.

It’s okay, you can admit it: not everyone has the time or energy to keep up with big, complicated foreign stories. But this one is really important. Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: Egypt and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

1. What is Egypt?

Egypt is a country in the northeastern corner of Africa, but it’s considered part of the Middle East. It’s about the size of Texas and New Mexico combined and has a population of 85 million. Egyptians are mostly Arab and mostly Muslim, although about 10 percent are Christian. Egyptians are very proud of their history and culture; they are among the world’s first great civilizations.

You probably know Egypt from its ancient pyramids and Sphinx, but Egyptians are still changing the world today. In the 20th century, they were in the forefront of the founding of two ideological movements that reshaped – are still reshaping, at this moment – the entire Middle East: Arab nationalism and Islamism.

2. Why are people in Egypt killing each other?

There’s been a lot of political instability since early 2011, when you probably saw the footage of a million-plus protesters gathered in Cairo to demand that the president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, step down. He did, but that opened up a big power struggle that hasn’t been anywhere near resolved. It’s not just people at the top of the government fighting among one another, it’s lots of regular people who have very different visions for where they want their country to go.

Today is the latest round in a two-and-a-half-year fight over what kind of country Egypt will be. Because regular people tend to express their political will by protesting (keep in mind that democracy is really new and untested in Egypt), and because Egyptian security forces have a long track record of violence against civilians, the “fight for Egypt’s future” isn’t just a metaphor. Often, it’s an actual physical confrontation that happens on the street.

3. Okay, but why are they fighting today specifically?

Egyptian security forces assaulted two sprawling sit-in camps in downtown Cairo this morning and tried to disperse the protesters. The protesters fought back. So far, there have been dozens killed, a lot of them apparently civilians shot by live ammunition rounds used by security forces.

The protesters were there in support of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in a military coup in early July (the military is still in charge). Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group to which a number of the protesters in today’s clashes belong. He was also the country’s first democratically elected leader.

4. Well, if the military staged a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, then all those Egyptians who protested in 2011 for democracy must be furious, right?

Actually, no. A whole lot of Egyptians, especially the liberal groups that led the 2011 revolution, were happy about the coup. A number of them were even calling on the military-led government to break up the largely peaceful pro-Morsi protest camp, even though there were children present and no one thought it would disperse without bloodshed.

There are two things to understand here. The first is that Morsi, and there’s no sugar-coating this, did not do a good job as president. He had a difficult task, sure, but he really bungled the economy, which was already in free fall. He did precious little to include non-Islamists. And he took some very serious steps away from democracy, including arresting journalists and pushing through an alarming constitutional change that granted him sweeping powers.

But the second thing to understand is that Egypt is starkly divided, and has been for decades, between those two very different ideologies I mentioned. Many Egyptians don’t just dislike Morsi’s abuses of power, they dislike the entire Islamist movement he represents. What you’re seeing today is a particularly bloody manifestation of that divide, which goes far deeper than liberals distrusting Morsi because he was a bad president.

5. Look, all this stuff about ideologies sounds complicated. Can you just tell me why Egypt is such a mess right now?

I hear you, but the thing about today’s crisis is that, yes, it has do with basic stuff like the breakdown of public order and some really ham-fisted governance by the military. But it also has to do with a 60-year-old ideological conflict that’s never really been resolved.

Stay with me for a moment: Back in the years just after World War II, Egypt was ruled by a king who was widely seen as a British pawn. Egyptians didn’t like that. They also didn’t like losing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and they wanted a way out of their long period of national humiliation. A lot of them were turning to a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood, which argued, and still argues, that Islamic devotion and unity are the ultimate answer. Their ideas, and their campaign for an Islamic government, are called Islamism.

A group of Egyptian military officers had a different idea. In 1952, they led a coup against the king. A charismatic lieutenant colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and promoted, as his answer to Egypt’s problems, an ideology called Arab nationalism. It calls for secularism, progress, Arab unity and resistance against Western imperialism.

Both of those movements swept through the Middle East, transforming it. Arab Nationalists took power in several countries; the Syrian regime today is one of them, and so was the regime headed by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Islamism also expanded in many countries, and sprouted some violent offshoots. But the two movements prescribe very different paths to the Middle East’s salvation, see themselves as mutually exclusive and have competed, at times violently, ever since. That is particularly true of Egypt, and has been since Nasser took power in 1952.

And that’s why you’re seeing many Egyptian liberals so happy about a military coup that displaced the democracy they fought to establish: Those liberals are closely linked to secular Arab nationalism, which means that they both revere the military and hate the Muslim Brotherhood, maybe even more than they crave democracy. Old habits die hard.

6. This is getting really complicated. Can we take a music break?

Good idea. Egyptian pop culture dominates the Arab world, in part because Egypt is so populous and in part because it’s really good. Their most celebrated singer is Omm Kalthoum, whom Egyptians revere in the way that Italian-Americans do Frank Sinatra. Her recordings can sound a bit dated, though, so here is a cover by the contemporary singer Amal Maher:

7. So I see that lots of people are upset with the U.S. for not doing more to support democracy in Egypt. What’s the deal?

The United States is a close political and military ally of Egypt and has been since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter engineered an historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that involved, among other things, enormous U.S. payouts to both countries as long as they promised not to fight any more wars. That also required the U.S. to look the other way on Egypt’s military authoritarianism and its bad human rights record. It was the Cold War, and supporting friendly dictatorships was in style. And we’ve basically been stuck there ever since.

The Obama administration most recently drew withering criticism for refusing to call the military’s July 3 ouster of the president a “coup.” Doing so would likely require the U.S. to cut its billion-plus dollars in annual military aid to Egypt. That is also why you’re seeing the White House appearing very hesitant about responding to today’s violence with actual consequences.

Sure, the U.S. wants democracy in Egypt. But it wants leverage with the Egyptian government even more. That has been true of every administration since Carter. It was not actually until the Obama administration that the U.S. came to accept the idea that Islamists, who have been a big political force in Egypt for almost a century now, should play a role in governing. But they’re sticking with the status quo; no one wants to be the administration that “lost” Egypt.

8. Wow, that’s depressing. Surely someone wants Egypt to be a peaceful and inclusive democracy?

Not really. Most Egyptians are way too preoccupied with their ideological divide to imagine a government that might bridge it. Self-described liberals seem to prefer a secular nationalist government, even if it’s the military regime in power today, as long as it keeps Islamists out. The Islamists, for their part, were more than happy to push out anyone who disagreed with them once they took power in 2012 through a democratic process that their leader appeared very willing to corrupt. Both movements are so big and popular that neither one of them can rule without at least attempting to include the other. But neither appears willing to do that.

When I asked Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, what he made of the liberals’ embrace of the military coup and why he had started referring to them as “alleged liberal groups,” he wrote as part of his response, “I think Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat are the only true liberals in Egypt.”

9. Hi, there’s too much text so I skipped to the bottom to find out the big take-away. What happens next?

No one has any idea, but it looks bad. There are three things that most analysts seem to agree on. Any or all of these could prove wrong, but they’re the most common, short-term predictions:

• The military-led government will keep cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and stirring up preexisting public animosity toward the group, both of which they’ve been doing since the 1950s.

• The U.S. will call for a peaceful and inclusive democratic transition, as Secretary of State John Kerry did this afternoon, but will refrain from punishing the Egyptian military for fear of losing leverage.

• The real, underlying problems — ideological division and a free-falling economy — are only going to get worse.

In the aggregate, these point to more violence and more instability but probably not a significant escalation of either. Medium-term, with some U.S. pressure, there will probably be a military-dominated political process that might stagger in the direction of a troubled democracy. Longer-term, who knows?

As the highly respected Egypt expert and Century Foundation scholar Michael Hanna told me recently, “Egypt might just be ungovernable.”

If West Antarctica collapses entirely — a process that would likely play out over centuries, but that could substantially begin in this one – the expected 11 feet of sea level rise won’t just spread out evenly across the ocean. The United States will actually get a lot more sea level rise than many other parts of the world — possibly over 14 feet. Call it geophysical karma — we’re the nation most responsible for global warming and, at least in this particular case, we’ll get more of the consequences.

Hannah White Arnett (1733-1824)

Art by Maliha C. (tumblr)

In 1776, a small group of men met at the home of Issac and Hannah Arnett in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  They were considering abandoning the patriots and pledging their loyalty to the British Crown in exchange for the protection of their property.  Hannah overheard their conversation and became enraged.  She broke into the meeting and called the men cowards. Hannah’s passionate defense of the patriot cause convinced the men to reject the Crown’s offer of protection.

In 1890, the newly formed Sons of the American Revolution decided to exclude women from membership.  In response, Mary Lockwood wrote an editorial in The Washington Post detailing the contributions made by women during the Revolutionary War.  Mary singled out Hannah Arnett for praise and asked “Where will the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution place Hannah Arnett?”  

Mary’s editorial galvanized female descendants of patriots to found their own organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution.  They received support from William Osborn McDowell, a founding member of the Sons of the American Revolution and a direct descendant of Hannah White Arnett.

The average citizen is probably scratching their head right now. “Wait,” they’re thinking, “give teachers more time? These people already have off June, July, and August! And, what, don’t they only work until 3 o’clock or whatever? Heck, when they work, they just tell students to read the textbook and walk around, slapping the ruler on the desk a few times before returning to their desk to watch cat videos on YouTube and then sharing them with their union buddies. No wonder the schools in America are terrible.” But the fact of the matter is, teachers don’t have time for everything we need to accomplish in the average school day, and the small window of time we do have is often dominated by things that have no bearing on student achievement.

The models stand up to scrutiny.

Weather and climate agencies around the world have been almost unanimous in declaring 2014 the hottest year on record — something that has promoted considerable chagrin among climate change doubters.

That’s because these “skeptics” [deniers] have long sought to cast doubt on man-made global warming by pointing to an alleged global warming “pause” or “slowdown” — going on to suggest that the computerized climate models that scientists use to project future temperatures are flawed, and overestimate carbon dioxide’s warming effect.

So, is that true? Do the models consistently overestimate the warming effects of greenhouse gases like CO2?

As a recent study suggests, the answer is no

Solid read. Edited for clarity.

While I ended up with a rewarding and varied professional life, your letter shows just how much Harvard — not to mention my husband, our families and even myself — didn’t give my career the respect it deserved when I was just starting out.

In 1961, Phyllis Richman applied to graduate school at Harvard. She received a letter asking how she would balance a career in city planning with her “responsibilities” to her husband and possible future family. Fifty-two years later, she responds.

The Washington Post


Really WaPo? Really? How are we supposed to take your “PostEverything” section seriously when you’re publishing pieces that would be better suited for The Onion

[Fox contributor Allen West] has successfully demonstrated that he possesses the leadership skills of a combat officer as well as managerial and diplomatic skills of a congressman, exactly the traits needed in the next director. Highly competent and beholden to no one in the Secret Service, he would be a superb director.

Keep in mind that West is the same guy who just last week told the military to disobey orders from the President. Because that’s exactly the type of person who should be running the Secret Service…

A few other gems from U.S. Army Lt. Col. West: 

  • Calling President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder “the most vile and disgusting racists.”
  • Claiming “Barack Hussein Obama has an Islamist sympathy … I don’t understand where this president’s loyalties lie, and I have to ask the question, whose side is he on?”
  • Declining to dispute an audience member who falsely claimed that “Obama is a Muslim.” Instead, West responded that he’s “not going to get into that” but the president “has an Eastern orientation, I’ll put it that way.”
  • Arguing that the “Democrat Party is an anti-Semitic party.”
  • Accusing Democrats of being Nazis, communists, and modern day slave holders.

You just can’t make this stuff up… unless you’re a Fox contributor, of course.

Apparently Republicans aren’t racist. But the biracial family of future NYC mayor Bill de Blasio makes them want to vomit.

First Mike Bloomberg told us that Bill de Blasio was racist because he had a biracial family he didn’t keep locked up in a basement. Now, Washington Post Columnist Richard Cohen informs us that de Blasio’s family disgusts conventional people, who are not racist:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

First of all, it’s not clear what the hell Cohen is talking about. This reads more like a stream-of-consciousness-writing-without-lifting-your-pen-or-realizing-you’re-a-racism-apologist exercise than it does a column… meant for publication. But let’s try to break it down. Cohen is saying

  • Harry Belafonte called the tea party racist.
  • The Republican Party, however, is not racist. 
  • They just don’t like things like the government or the avant guard. 
  • The totally non-racist Republican Party is made up of conventional people who are nauseated by inter-racial marriage.

Here’s the thing. There are people who have visceral reactions to inter-racial marriage and relationships. And those people are racist. And it’s fine to write about these people. It’s just not cool to call them conventional. And when you are trying to prove that a group of people are not racist, you may want to not use evidence like nausea at the sight of interracial relationships.

h/t: Katie at Feministing

This weekend, “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at pop culture juggernaut Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest serving member of the U.S. Supreme Court and star of her own comic book.

Actress Kate McKinnon played the 81-year-old Supreme Court Justice to a doily and over-sized glasses T. But marring McKinnon’s guest spot on the “Weekend Update” desk to “Gins-burn” a few friends, was the chyron at the bottom of the screen.

It read “Ruth Bader Ginsberg,” not the correct “Ginsburg.” Is Justice Ginsberg like the evil twin from backward world?

We could forgive a rookie mistake for a Not Super Famous Justice Who Everyone Loves Even If They Don’t Know Anything About the Supreme Court (actually we couldn’t, didn’t SNL just celebrate 40 years on air?). But come on, this is The Notorious RBG we’re talking about here. The woman whose prime time catnaps make national news.

“Context” is not a safe word that makes all your other horse-shit statements disappear. And horse-shit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed. It is horse-shit to claim that store owners are right to discriminate against black males. It is horse-shit to claim Trayvon Martin was wearing the uniform of criminals. It is horse-shit to subject your young female co-workers to “a hostile work environment.” It is horse-shit to expend precious newsprint lamenting the days when slovenly old dudes had their pick of 20-year-old women. It is horse-shit to defend a rapist on the run because you like The Pianist. And it is horse-shit for Katharine Weymouth, the Post’s publisher, to praise a column with the kind of factual error that would embarrass a j-school student.

Richard Cohen’s unfortunate career is the proper context to understand his column today and the wide outrage that’s greeted it. We are being told that Cohen finds it “hurtful” to be called racist. I am sorry that people on the Internet have hurt Richard Cohen’s feelings. I find it “hurtful” that Cohen endorses the police profiling my son. I find it eternally “hurtful” that the police, following that same logic, killed one of my friends. I find it hurtful to tell my students that, even in this modern age, vending horse-shit is still an esteemed and lucrative profession.
—  Ta-Nehisi Coates puts Richard Cohen and a lot of other bullshit into crystalline context in 245 words. That, ladies and gentlemen, is writing.

Just a simple moment. On assignment for the Washington Post, I photographed first grader Saniyah Conley as she skipped down the hallway during school on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, at Ariel Elementary Community Academy. 

Aggressive police take hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists not charged with crimes

One of those firms created a private intelligence network known as Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System that enabled police nationwide to share detailed reports about American motorists — criminals and the innocent alike — including their Social Security numbers, addresses and identifying tattoos, as well as hunches about which drivers to stop.

A thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing “trophy shots” of money and drugs. Some police advocate highway interdiction as a way of raising revenue for cash-strapped municipalities.

Among Black Asphalt’s features is a section called BOLO, or “be on the lookout,” where police who join the network can post tips and hunches.

Police set up what amounted to rolling checkpoints on busy highways and pulled over motorists for minor violations, such as following too closely or improper signaling. They quickly issued warnings or tickets. They studied drivers for signs of nervousness, including pulsing carotid arteries, clenched jaws and perspiration. They also looked for supposed “indicators” of criminal activity, which can include such things as trash on the floor of a vehicle, abundant energy drinks or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors.

A must read.