• June 13, 2007
  • 17 minutes read

Egypt heading for collapse: John Bradley

Egypt heading for collapse: John Bradley

Egypt heading for collapse: John Bradley British Expert in Egyptian & Saudi Affairs

The Egyptian Saudi struggle over the leadership, the nature of US relations with both Cairo and Riyadh, the project of boosting democracy and imposing reform on the region, Egypt’s future in light of current situation, the coming president and other important and sensitive issues were discussed in a detailed interview by Al-Masry Al-Youm with a British expert in Middle East politics in general and Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular. John Bradley is the writer of the best-selling book “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis”. According to experts, it is considered the most important book written in English about Saudi Arabia. He is preparing for publishing another book in New York in March titled “Inside Egypt”.
During his stay in the Middle East, Bradley wrote for several international newspapers and magazines including “The Economist”, “the Independent” and the “New Republican”. He also worked for BBC and CNN. He was also a chief editor at Al Ahram Weekly during his stay in Egypt in 1999. Here are the excerpts:

Q: Has the performance of the ruling family in Saudi Arabia changed under King Abdallah bin Abdel Aziz if compared to the leadership of King Fahd?

Bradley: There are very tiny differences on the local or internal level. Autocracy still exists there. When Abdallah was the Crown Prince ten years ago, many said he would be a reformer when assuming power. To be fair, I would say that his supporters and sympathizers were the ones who propagated that, but he never talked about himself.
In the nineties, wide scale talks took place over the Kingdom’s need for reform because it was facing serious economic problems due to overpopulation. It is not known to many that poverty and unemployment ratio is very high among Saudis and that large cities are encircled with poor neighbourhoods inhabited by Saudis.
Of course, large numbers of the rich still hate the royal family for their corruption and arrogance. In provinces like Al Hejaz, Aseer and Al-Sharqiah, people still consider Al-Saud an occupation force holding them by force and imposing Wahabism on them.
King Abdallah, however, remains the least corrupt and extremist if compared to his ancestors. Nobody can deny that conditions have changed inside the Kingdom since he succeeded King Fadh. Perhaps this would be an excuse for him to delay reform steps if he truly intended to do so.
Among the changes that took place, for instance, the rise in oil prices following the US war in Iraq, which meant a large surplus in the budget translated into hundreds of billions of US dollars. This allows the king to use the money in solving problems such as increasing salaries, upgrading infrastructure and supporting economic projects. This is the way the royal family pursue when dealing with economic crises. It is a superficial strategy not effective in resolving problems. It helps only gaining time and putting off radical settlement to things. Among the changes that occurred during Abdallah’s reign, are the recurrent waves of terror perpetrated by people furious of the regime’s backing to Americans and wanted to punish it for that.
Under the umbrella of participating in the war on terrorism, the royal family oppressed the opposition under the pretext of safeguarding national security. Saudi liberals, meanwhile, faced repression just like terrorists. In this respect, it can be said that the US war on terrorism benefited the royal family and allowed it to take on the opposition. All Arab regimes adopted the same strategy. The US, itself, did the same but its passive impact manifested clearly in the Arab region where there is no democracy.

Q: What is the difference between US relations with Saudi Arabia and that with Egypt, in light of the perception held by many analysts that Riyadh influences while Egypt is influenced?

Bradley: The difference can be measured as follows: if I were playing cards with someone and he showed me his cards from the very beginning. I would be confident that I would win and would not feel worry about it at all. This is the US position as to the Egyptian regime. The latter has exposed all its cards and implemented whatever it was asked to do since the seventies in return for aid. Washington emerged the winner because Egypt has no winning cards anymore. The Egyptian regime like any other despotic regime cares only for its own survival and the Americans realize this clearly.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, cradles its cards against its breast. Like Egypt, it is a strong ally of the United States. Its regime, of course, keen on holding to power but on, the other hand, Saudis have winning cards which they resort to when things get complicated on the international level i.e. oil.
Although Russia produces the same oil quantity of Saudi Arabia, yet Saudi Arabia could beef up output at a record time. Moreover, it has one third of the world oil reserves. This grants Al-Saud additional credit when dealing with Washington. King Abdallah is also the custodian of the two holiest mosques. So, when he talks about Iraq or Palestinians, Americans should listen.
Of course, the words of the Saudi monarch are neither effective nor smart and paid no fruit, but the important point is that nobody knows where things are going on inside the ruling house. Unlike the Egyptian regime, Saudi rulers are very keen on keeping things obscure and making all think what would happen. To make it clear, the Saudi regime is professional in the art of international diplomacy.
At the same time, I would like to stress the strong ties between successive US presidents whether being democrats or republicans and the Saudi Royal family. These relations particularly the current ones under Bush administration helped in getting viewpoints closer.
To the contrary, I believe that relations between Bush and Mubarak are not strong or close. We could figure this out in wake of September 11th attacks. Although 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis led and organized by a Saudi Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda which adopts the extremist Wahabi thoughts which are harboured by a few Muslims but sponsored by Al-Saud who control media in the Middle East, yet the wave of anger against the royal family was contained. The Bush administration has not criticized it but rather invaded Iraq, the country that has no links to Al Qaeda and condemned- just like Iran- the September attacks.
The Egyptian regime does not have a room for maneuvering or a privilege in its relations with the US. When, it talks about Iraq or Palestinians, the West does not care. Even those concerned do not take note, simply because everyone there- not only Egyptians, knows that the regime would take the US side anyway as long as it guarantees its survival in power.

Q: There was large argument recently over a political rivalry between Cairo and Riyadh, do you think that there is a struggle over leadership in the region?

Bradley: Rivalry between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is there on different levels not just political one and it is deeply rooted. I am not exaggerating when I say that such struggle could shape the future in the Islamic world at large not only the Arab one. I said so, because Egypt is historically liberal in politics, global in culture, moderate in religion and diverse in opinion. Saudi Arabia, in turn, adopts conservative policy, close culture, immoderate religion and unilateral opinion.
The fight between the two sides dated back to the reign of great Egyptian ruler Mohammad Ali in early nineteenth century when he received orders from the Ottoman Sultan to expel the extremist Al-Saud family and their Wahabi allies from Mecca which they used to occupy. Mohammad Ali carried out the mission with flying colours. He did a good service to Islam because he liberated Mecca from extremist faction.
Unfortunately, Al-Saud restored, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, control of Mecca and Madinah and other provinces of the Kingdom established in 1932. They imposed Wahabism as the main faith of the state. Egyptians lived there suffered much.
Things became more catastrophic after the exploration of a lake of oil underneath in Saudi Arabia. This led to the use of hefty money for spreading like fire Wahabism in the Islamic world. They managed, in effect, to infiltrate some categories of the Egyptian society through Egyptian expatriates. I think that ethnic sedition between Christians and Muslims in the seventies coincided with the flow of Egyptian into Saudi Arabia for work. Egyptians, whether being Muslims or Christians, live in peace of several centuries but Wahabism spread the idea that Christians are apostates who should be converted to Islam. I do not think that this has a base in Egyptian culture or moderate Islam believed by Egyptians.
Of course, everyone knew the fierce rivalry between Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the reign of late President Gamal Abdel Naser and the rapprochement between the two sides under Sadat. At that statements like Arab brotherly love and other meaningless rhetoric were reiterated.
I do not think that there is such a rivalry between Mubarak and Abdallah because both of them are busy doing other things and neither of them is important. History, I believe, would not remember them as great leaders but essential and ideological competition between Egypt and its moderate Sunni Azhr Institution and Saudi Arabia and its extremist Wahabi approach. Historically, Egypt is stronger but the Saudi rise coincided with Egyptian downturn particularly after Azhr fell in the hands of the military regime. Despite all this, I say, a few decades are just points in history; Egypt would win anew on the long run. Let’s wait till Saudi Arabia ran out of oil resources.

Q: Do you think that internal fight in Palestine between Fatah and Hamas reflects diplomatic failure for Saudi Arabia which sponsored the Mecca agreement?

Bradley: Anyone thinks that the Saudi initiative has anything good would be a fool. Isn’t it shameful of Palestinian leaders to accept orders from a dictator like King Abdallah? The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is very long and has internal and external reasons. But when we talk precisely about a Saudi role in this case, we should search for the motive. Riyadh does not want tranquility and peace in the Palestinian territories out of keenness for Palestinians. When did it seek to help them? What did any Arab regime do for Palestinians except assisting in killing them? No, in fact Saudis are helping Palestinians now after Iranians intervened and President Ahmadinejad started to compete for leadership with Saudi Arabia and gain wide scale popularity in the Arab street.
Ahmadinejad, in turn, would do nothing for Palestinians. Unfortunately, Palestinians were always pawns for all Middle East regimes because there were victims of Israeli occupation. It should be said that Palestinian leaders were also the enemies of themselves. How could foreign parties help people who do not want to help themselves?

Q: traditional question.. Did Americans backtrack from their project of imposing democracy and reform in the Middle East?

Bradley: It is important to start from the very beginning in order to understand this issue well. Before Iraq war, there were hints about spreading democracy in Iraq and the Middle East among American officials. After the collapse of Saddam regime, the talk and topic changed.
In fact the idea of democratizing the Middle East was no sincere at all. Americans wanted only to cover up their lies over the goal of the war. But, they discovered that things getting out of control in certain areas. For instance, Hamas won elections in Palestinian elections and Muslim Brotherhood cashed in on the forced openness in Egypt. When Washington found that, it backtracked quickly because democracy in its dictionary means people electing rulers they (Americans) approve. Thus, the project failed.

Q: You spent long time in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries of the region, Do you think that Arab peoples do not understand or deserve democracy as some of their leaders say?

Bradley: It is ironic that Arab governments say that their peoples are not ready for democracy because they are responsible for that. Let’s take the Egyptian and Saudi models. There were regular democratic elections in Hejaz province before Al-Saud assumed power but when they took over they called off elections. Thus, it seems that the regime not the people was not ready for democracy.
In Egypt also, elections were regular and democratic before July revolution. Shortly afterwards, the military regime called off opposition parties, undermined free press by nationalization or making it governmental by appointing its chief editors who later became kings.
Certainly, there were problems in the democracy applied in Egypt and Hejaz before Al-Saud and the revolution, but democracy was also a newly born in the West. What King Abdel Aziz and Gamal Abdel Nasr did in Saudi Arabia and Egypt can not be tolerated. They killed everything that is good. They brought the bad instead. So, if Arabs are not accustomed to democracy now, this is due to the dictators who denied them that.

Q: Do you think that Arab reformers were right when they held the US responsible for the autocratic Arab regimes and for its insistence on allowing them to go on?

Bradley: As I explained before the US was never serious about the idea of democracy. It likes Arab dictators. Could you ever hate a person who jumps to your service? However, I blame Arab intellectuals particularly those who speak English and were educated in the West for backing the toppling of Saddam Hussein regime with the aim of spreading democracy. As I said before, they were playing with fire because their peoples would dub them traitors when the American democratic dream vanishes. This is what exactly happened.

Q: Where is Egypt heading for?

Bradley: Egypt is heading for collapse. I had spent 18 months in Egypt before I left to for Saudi Arabia and returned to spend a year. During this period, I noticed fast deterioration in all sectors. The rich is getting richer and the poor is getting poorer. The gap between the regime and the people is widening. Ordinary citizens seem to be more concerned about the future. Prices are now tripled compared to 1999 but salaries of my Egyptian friends are still fixed.
There is something which I could not figure out. It is a mixture of disappointment, rage and despair spreading everywhere. Egypt now is on the verge of dramatic change. Egyptians now live times similar to pre- 1952 revolution and the assassination of Sadat. I hope that the regime would wake up before it is too late and realize that it turned its people into enemies. I think that the last thing Egypt and the majority of the Egyptians need is a violent revolution. Egyptians prefer peace and stability. Aggressive revolutions would set the country long years back.

Q: How did the West see Gamal Mubarak? What do you think of the inheritance issue?

Bradley: I do not think that Westerners should tell Egyptians how they should or should not rule their country. If Egyptians do not want Gamal Mubarak, they should organize themselves and vote against him if he nominated himself. If they do not do so, it means that they do not care about their future.
I, personally, think that it is not important who would rule Egypt because he would be a dictator like his predecessors. War profiteers would continue to steal the country to drain its resources. I think that the system itself should be changed not only individuals, because whoever brought by elections, even if he were honest and transparent, would preside over a corrupt system. The system is stronger than the individual. So, it would squash him without mercy, even if he were a reformer, as long as the system is corrupt.

Q: As for Muslim Brotherhood, do you think that they could be, in effect, an Islamic moderate substitute to the current regime?

Bradley: Brothers were the flavour of the month in Western press. Some observers do think that they are a suitable substitute. I think, nobody should be concerned if they amended the constitution, in case of assuming power, because Mubarak did so. I think they would settle their affairs externally, so as to be able to carry on.
The Brothers’ problem is that, despite their good organization and strong roots, they do not have experience in ruling the state on the national level. Their reactions are emotional rather than rational regarding international events.
Anyway, I think that there is exaggeration in Western concepts regarding backing Brothers in Egypt, because the vast majority of Egyptians did not vote for the National Democratic Party or the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent elections. They stayed at home. Brothers are socially and religiously more fundamental than most Egyptian, who respect freedom, moderation, other religions, could accept. Many Egyptians love jokes, so they would not welcome a fundamental party. Most Egyptians who backed Brothers in elections told me that they did so not out of love for Islamists but out of their belief that Brothers oppose Mubarak and corruption.

Q: What does your new book “Inside Egypt” tackle?

Bradley: I focus on political and social culture in Egypt since 1952 revolution till date. I try to collect views of Egyptians of different classes. I was keen on listening to voices of sympathizers and opponents whether being liberals or Islamists with the aim of changing the negative stereotype vision of Egypt in the West. There are millions of people live in the West think that they would be killed by terrorist as soon as they get off the plane. I hope that, after reading my book, they would get the right picture.