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Archive for the ‘World Politics’ Category

Things aren’t going well in Egypt.  Police forces – who abandoned their posts at the beginning of the anti-Mubarak protests – have been slow to return.  The army’s in charge, but they don’t have the resources to maintain peace in Cairo, a city of 18 million people, much less the country with a population of 80 million.  This means, of course, that there is no law; that the thugs and thieves and radicals are doing what they do, unfettered.

You’ll recall that the Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt while King Herod hunted for the Savior.  It was a safe and peaceful place occupied by diverse cultures.  After the crucifixion,  the Apostle Mark – a Libyan native – founded  The School of Alexandria in Egypt.  From this school came Coptic Christianity.

The “invasion” of Arab Muslims in the seventh century A.D., ultimately reduced the presence of the Copts to the ten percent minority they are today.  Between then and now, there has been bitterness and war arguably initiated by both sides.  Copts have long believed themselves to be the persecuted.

On New Year’s Day, a suicide bomber detonated in front of a church in Alexandria killing 21 Copts and injuring many others.  The church itself was heavily damaged.  Last week, the central Coptic Church in Cairo was torched by Muslims.  This was the extension of a violent feud between two families over the love affair of a Christian-Muslim couple.  Egyptian generals have pledged to rebuild the church, but no matter; the Copts are in full protest mode in all of the country’s major cities.

Thousand of Christians have massed in front of government and television buildings.  Important highways have been blocked, tires have been burned and cars are being pelted with rocks.

Today, a large group of these protesters were set upon by a mob who shot and killed 13 and wounded 140.  History suggests that this will cause reprisal by the Copts which will bring about response from the Muslims.  It’s a vicious cycle akin to the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts dating back many decades (or centuries, depending on how you choose to count them).

All of this adds to the sense of instability as experienced by Egyptians and perceived by the world community.  While we watch the many Muslims strive for democracy and against corrupt government, there is yet another lesser-known front where a minority are beset by the majority.

First, there was a popular uprising in Tunisia.  President Ben Ali fled his country, and allegedly took with him 1.5 tons of his country’s gold.  Western media were sparse, and the story faded away.  But Al Jazeera was there, and the video they captured was sent throughout the Arab world.  That video touched a vein in Egypt where the despot Mubarak was eventually unseated by great masses of people.  Tens of billions of his country’s riches were stashed in his name in Swiss bank accounts.  The Swiss have thankfully frozen those assets.

Then came Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and now Libya which seems to be inflicting the harshest punishment against its people.  Qaddafi has claimed that al-Qaeda is supporting his dissenters, and that Osama bin Laden is directly to blame.  On the surface, this seems to be just another bombastic utterance from a madman.

In truth, however, al-Qaeda is licking its chops at the thought of gaining more ground in all of these countries.  And what of al-Qaeda’s mortal enemy, “The Muslim Brotherhood”?  Well, despite rumors to the contrary, the non-violent Brotherhood is doing all it can to help people; all people in the region regardless of religion.

Qaddafi?  He could be gone tomorrow, but not before he and his sons have pillaged untold hundreds of millions.

People of the Arab world, mostly Muslim, are clamoring for change; for freedom from dictatorial rule; for democracy.  The Middle East is a hotbed of protest by ordinary people wanting their human rights and a voice in their governments.  We, the free people of the western world, applaud these movements toward democracy.  It’s what we’ve always wished for, isn’t it?  People around the world should enjoy the same freedoms we do.

But events in these far-off lands have consequences right here at home.  Unrest on this scale makes our stock markets nervous.  This puts at risk stocks held by you and me in our 401(k)s, pension funds and investment accounts.  No crystal balls are able to predict what comes next, but it could be that the markets decline; this just after we’ve had a taste of a return to prosperity following “the great recession.”

Oil speculators were bringing up the price of their products – including gasoline  – well before the mid-east got fired up.  Now, the reasoning for yet further price increases is more easily seen.  This, of course, affects you and me even more directly.

Some Middle Eastern nations have diverse economies.  As a whole, however, the main economic engine is oil.  You well know how important oil is to the world; it literally fuels all of commerce.  The great fear now is that current events will bring opportunity to mal-intents who would destroy the oil fields and pipelines.

As a side note, Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the region, seems to be on stable footing.  King Aziz is well-liked by his people and an uprising there seems unlikely.  Add to that the fact that the American government stands ready to “assist” its ally if their oil resources are threatened.  So say the insiders.

And, of course, we should recognize that Israel is particularly nervous about current events.  It perceives its security to be at risk.  Here again, America stands ready to protect its ally in a heartbeat.  Wouldn’t that be an interesting military scenario?  Putting aside the fact that we have our troops already spread thinly in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we’d have military assets in four countries in the same region.  The geopolitical nuances of this picture should cause our heads to spin.

The chattering class is busier than ever, expressing sometimes insightful opinion,  sometimes inciting rhetoric about all of this; you’ve likely heard lots of it over the past couple of months.  One analyst took a macro view on Charlie Rose the other night.  He was talking about the rise in oil prices not from the perspective of the impacts on our wallets, but of the impacts on nations.  He said, “If the price of a barrel of oil reaches, say, $175, that will have a crippling effect on the Mozambique’s of the world.”

Sure, Mozambique is just one country.  But there are many just like it.  Nations of doomed people will wreak havoc upon their governments and infrastructures and will then starve to death.  The cumulative effect of many third-world countries on the world’s economy should be easy to see.  And the possibility of stronger economies declining as a result is also a logical thought.

The picture being painted before our very eyes is really quite frightening.  We’re hoping for the best, but there’s a little catch in our gut telling us that things look pretty bad.  There are doomsayers who are using current events as substantiation for the fulfillment of prophecy, and they could be right.  Maybe things are lining up for an ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario.

But I just keep thinking about the number of times I’ve heard similar assertions – made both by the well-meaning and the crazy – that turned out to be, well, wrong.  Things do look bad now.  There is much to worry about.  But let’s compare notes again in a couple of months.  My money is on our being in far better shape then than we now fear.

Egypt is a mess.  It was a mess before Mubarak and before Sadat.  Now, after decades of repression, subjugation and torture, the Egyptian people have spoken.  They have gained their freedom.  Or have they?

The Egyptian Army is in charge during this “transition” period.  That could be bad; patrols on every corner; the possible emergence of military rule.  But I don’t think that’s what will happen long term.  Why?  Because the army has a business to run; many businesses, in fact.

The army manufactures and markets olive oil, cement, kitchen ware, fire extinguishers, heavy appliances, TV’s and laptops.  They run oil companies and the hotel industry.  The Egyptian Army is responsible for somewhere between five and forty percent of that nation’s economy.  No one knows for sure because the army isn’t showing its books.

Things could go one of two ways, if not more.  First, the army could choose to continue the repression of the Egyptian people, some thirty percent of whom live in abject poverty.  But that would mean that the army would have to divert some of its resources to non-business matters.

More likely, I think, is a scenario where the army releases its control to a new regime as quickly as possible, so as to return full-time to the profitable thing that it is.

To be sure, the Egyptian Army is a fighting force, the largest on the African continent and second largest in the middle-east.  Only Israel’s Army is larger.   Egypt’s Army has allied itself with the U.S. military for its bi-annual “Bright Star” exercises, and fought well in the first Gulf War.  It is also a major buyer of U.S.-made heavy military equipment; some of it licensed for manufacture in Egypt.

But the army’s bread and butter, it knows, is the business conglomerate that it controls.  It is in their best interest to see Egyptians produce and prosper.  In that way, cash will flow into army business coffers.

It should be noted that retired generals and political cronies helm some of these enterprises.  Too, there is a fair amount of corruption in the army’s business ranks.  No one who seeks leadership in the new Egypt will achieve that position without the army’s backing.

But, for the moment, the army is a money-making machine, and would like to stay that way.  They’re interested in stability.  Unrest and chaos are unwelcome.  If that means holding onto power, they will; but, I think, with a soft hand.

Another thing.  The army’s lower ranks, the troops who would be closest to the people if there was military rule, are, financially, little better off than the general populace.  These troops would not be highly motivated to attack their own brothers and sisters who, just yesterday, were playing in their back yards with them.

These are possible “perfect world” scenarios.  There is little “perfect” about things in Egypt these days.  The people have spoken in a mighty way, and for the first time in most of their lives, have won what they perceive to be their freedom.  Their battle was noble, hard-fought and bloody.  But the slate is clean now, as is Tahrir Square.  Many questions must now be asked; answers must be proffered.  What kind of government will be created?  Who will lead Egypt into its next phase in history?

An interesting dichotomy now exists.  Other populations in the region see that it’s possible to win their freedoms; and geo-political and economic interests want a return to (relative) stability in the mid-east.

It’ll be a tough ride for the Egyptian people.  The eyes of the world are upon them.

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