Top Ten Ways Egypt Actually Does deeply Matter to the United States

A Pew poll shows that far fewer Americans are following events in Egypt closely now than in January-February 2011. Actually, about the same percentage are following it “fairly closely” as then (a quarter now versus 31% in 2011). The big fall-off is in people following events on the Nile “very closely,” which are only 15% nowadays. I think this outcome in part derives from corporate news executives’ calculation that there was far more advertising money to be made from the Zimmerman trial than from events in Cairo, which are much more expensive and much more difficult to cover.

I can’t explain why, but my own experience is that the three cable news channels, along with the networks, somehow set the American public’s news agenda. The viewership for cable news in any one hour is relatively small, but people must talk about it over the water cooler or something. Of course, my observation is anecdotal, but as a prominent blogger I do have ways of telling when a subject is popular. But another consideration is that the Egypt events began unfolding the week of the Fourth of July, and a lot of Americans were on vacation then, and went on vacation after. Students are very interested in news nowadays, but are less so in the middle of the summer when they are off and sometimes traveling.

Whatever the reasons the US public is less excited about Egypt’s ongoing revolution at the moment, the country is in fact important to the US. Even if we want to put aside sentimental considerations (we should care about the fate of 83 million kindred human beings), there are Realist reasons for which Egypt matters. Just on the security side, it is baffling that so many Americans are uninterested in Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency spying on millions of Americans, because they say that the security thus gained is ‘worth it.’ But what happens in Egypt affects US security, so it is part of the thing for which they are willing to just toss away the Bill of Rights. Shouldn’t they be more interested in security-related developments if they are going to use them as a pretext to give up our key constitutional liberties? In any case, here are some material reasons for which Egypt is important to every American, beyond the humanist and humanitarian ones that should be foremost:

1. How many bargains you get when shopping depends on Egypt’s Suez Canal being open for business. Between 8% and 12% of all international trade goes through Egypt’s Suez Canal, which cuts thousands of miles off ship journeys from Asia to Europe and to the North American East Coast. We can call it 10% of world trade on a rolling average (trade is still down after the 2008 crash). But note that if the Suez Canal were to be closed by the country’s turbulence, it wouldn’t just affect that ten percent– the impact on prices of many commodities would be across the board.

2. The price of your smart phone and Tablet are dependent on Egypt. Some 22% of all the world’s container traffic goes through the Suez Canal, which can handle larger ships at lower tolls than the Panama Canal, at least for the next few years. Containers are those huge boxes in which goods are packed compactly, allowing one ship to carry many tons of them. Your iPhones and tablets, made mostly in Asia, would be much more expensive without the Suez Canal.

3. Although Egypt is not a big exporter of fuels, a lot of oil and gas comes through the canal or through pipelines across Egypt. Even without interruptions, the instability in Egypt will likely put gasoline prices up around 30 cents a gallon for the rest of the summer, just on speculation. Over 2 million barrels a day of petroleum goes either through the Suez Canal or through pipelines across Egypt, destined for the European and American markets. (Despite what the Right wing tells you, the US imports 40 percent of its oil daily, and there is no prospect of it being oil independent any time soon unless we go to electric cars powered by wind and solar). Likewise, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) shipments through the canal have increased 8-fold since 2008 and as the US Energy Information Agency notes, “Countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Italy received over 80 percent their total LNG imports via the Suez Canal in 2010, while Turkey, France, and the United States had about a quarter of their LNG imports transited through the Canal.” Moreover, those businessmen who want to export fracked natural gas from the US to, e.g. India, need it to go through the Suez Canal. If the canal were closed by political instability or the pipelines were blown up by guerrillas, the impact on energy and fuel prices in the United States would not be trivial.


4. The fate of democracy in Egypt, which is admittedly a wounded bird nowadays, will not only affect its own future. Egypt is an opinion leader for much of the Arab world, and its form of government has often been influential for regional governments such as Libya and Syria. Mediterranean and European security, i.e. that of NATO allies of the US, is deeply wrought up with the Middle East and hence depends in part on what happens in Egypt.

5. What happens in Egypt is important to Americans because it deeply affects the several hundred thousand Egyptian-Americans and the millions of Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans.

6. The Egyptian military provides a security umbrella to much of the Arab world, including to the small countries of the Oil Gulf and of the Arabian Peninsula along the Red Sea. The Middle East has 65 percent of the world’s known petroleum reserves, and produces about 30% of the world’s oil. Although it is true that the US in particular gets only about 20% of its petroleum imports from the Old World, energy markets are tightly interconnected and US security depends on inexpensive Middle Eastern gas and petroleum. If Egypt becomes unstable and its instability is catching, American access to fuel and energy will be affected, as will that of many close American allies.

7. If devotees of political Islam give up on democracy because their president, Muhammad Morsi, was deposed in Egypt, and if they turn instead to violent politics (i.e. to terrorism), that change would certainly have a huge impact on security in the United States.

8. Some 45% of Egypt is made up of youth under the age of 30, and Egyptians account for about a fourth of all Arabs. Egypt is central to the Arab world, and if its youth give up their attachment to democracy, it would be a significant loss to US and Egyptian security.

9. Turkey is a NATO ally of the US, and its center-right, Muslim-leaning government, has been extremely upset about the coup against their friend, Muhammad Morsi. Turkish foreign policy in the Arab world was almost non-existent in 2000, but it is now substantial, along with trade flows. Turkey’s success as a regional power depends in part on improving relations with Egypt.

10. Among the major American projects in the Middle East is ensuring the security of Israel. Over the long run, this effort seems to me likely to be futile, since Israel as it is presently configured faces severe demographic, political and military challenges, challenges it deepens and multiplies by its colonization of the West Bank. In the short term, however, there is no country as crucial to the security of Israelis as Egypt.

John Donne said that no man is an island. Neither is any country in our globalized world, even the countries that are, geographically, islands. The US, with its $16 trillion a year economy dependent on global trade, is least island-like at all, and Egypt is a major country that is important to the trade, prosperity and security of the United States. We should care what happens there on humanistic grounds– nothing human should be alien to us. But we are fooling ourselves if we don’t at least care because our own fate is wrought up with that of the Egyptians.

15 Responses

  1. I think one reason the US public is less excited about Egypt’s ongoing revolution is the critical comments many protesting Egyptians have been making toward the US and Obama when seen recorded on TV or in the backgrounds of news-reporters’ broadcasts–both sides of the camps (Morsi and anti-Morsi) have people blaming the US for its neglect or support, respectively. Many Americans are also aware of the approximate 1.5 billion annual aid given to Egypt by America and they simplify the situation by thinking that we should not be giving aid to a country that “doesn’t like us” especially when we have domestic aid and unemployment issues at home. I think, in general, there will be a trend in the future of further disinterest in the chaos and troubles of other countries as Americans hunker down and ask their government to focus more on the domestic policy. This is a bad thing, because of globalization, but could be a good thing if Americans were able to convince politicians to focus less on areas of the world where are influence is ambiguous.

    • 1- US policies since January 2011 wasn’t effective and reaction on ongoing events were always late and reflect a state of uncertainty, secretary of state Clinton used to use the political term “We are so closely monitoring the situation in Egypt” and later they used the term ” We don’t know exactly what is happening in Egypt ” this situation of uncertainty and ignorance caused a great damage in Egypt- US relations, sometimes you gotta to know so closely how the ppl thinks not how their governments think otherwise you are very far away of revolution philosophy , the conclusion is “US failed in identifying and describing the state of revolution and failed to understand the meaning of revolution”
      2- Egyptian revolution was led by aristocratic youth, so it wasn’t a revolution of the hungers but it was the revolution of oppressed ppl and the regime that was oppressing them was supported by US, US is accused of giving the regime kiss of life so many times and to the last moment, Egyptians couldn’t eat the vision of a sieged ppl at the borders and couldn’t accept the idea that their government is a part of this criminal action against Palestinians, Egyptians could bear the idea of being threatened by 1.5 billion every time there is a problem with US
      3- We find that US embassy in Cairo don’t miss a chance to mock our miseries, once ambassador Paterson said that strawberry is a corner stone in US-Egypt improving relations and another time they mocked and in the embassy page in facebook and twitter they posted a video that mocks our former puppet Morsi, he is our puppet not US puppet and we are the only ppl has the write to finger his ass
      4- US is still till the moment following wrong policies, US can’t believe that all wicked games are clear to Egyptian ppl and we see clearly where US fingers paying

    • Samantha, good luck with the notion that “our government” is going to “focus more on domestic policy.” Except in the narrow sense that there will be more predations on us underclasspeople, more Big Data and “restrictions on abortion” and other human-rights issues, more crushing of modes of effective organization against kleptocracy and the Forever War and its giant wealth vacuum (like “unions”), more “conservative” and privatized schools and prisons and roads and bridges (still paid for by taxes and tolls on the general public).

      Seems to me “our government” is mostly offshore already, not just its attentions but its operations, especially the Imperial Military whose officers buy the Leviathan’s weapons and toys from Whereveristan, hire out the skilled tasks, and of which the “mission” has turned to simply protecting the wealth and sources of wealth of the wealthy, or might one say “filthy rich?” The structure we live under is corrupt with the Great Corruption that its “conservative” practitioners label, hypocritically or simply from unconscious irony, “Byzantine.”

      These folks seem to have calculated to a nicety, or just lucked into, a quantum of abuse of and parasitism on the most of us that is just below the boiling point, a little steam from time to time but no rolling bubbles, and injected enough ignorance and despondence into the pot to keep raising the boiling point by degrees to make things comfortable for their very well-fed selves, long enough off the boil, at least, to “retire” to resorts and enclaves of privilege.

      Let’s enjoy our momentary ability to “speak truth,” to keep blowing off steam, to keep relieving the pressure in the cooker… and take such comfort as we can in the ultimate incompetence of oppressive bureaucracies that kill off all the geese that lay the golden eggs they feed from. Not that that bodes well for us geese…

  2. Sounds to me like a rationale for favoring a return to the pliable, bribeable, West/Israel friendly, military dictatorship that was temporarily interrupted by democratic yearnings.

    I wonder whether the young Egyptians see the primary role of their country to be a smoothly operating, predictable, logistics facilitator for Western markets, aka “don’t rock the boat”.

    I think the Administration has already decided on guns for military and porta-potties for the demonstrators.

  3. Thank you for the informative article, Professor. I’m interested in your comment about the long term security of Israel. I haven’t thought of that before. Can you expand on that comment?

  4. There are only so many hours in a day and with non-stop, breathless coverage of the impending royal birth in London all other news has been correspondingly downgraded in importance.

  5. Turkey’s foreign policy is, to date under Davutoglu, an absolute comedy of bluster, wrong bets, and a transition from the historical “no problems” policy to a no friends policy. If they’re the region’s democratic beacon, the region is sailing in the dark. Need I list the ways?

  6. At the risk of being rude, 1-3 are pretty much all the same (Suez Canal) and 4-8 are also not really different, so this is more like 2 or 3 reasons. I can’t argue with the importance of the Suez Canal, but truthfully there seems small likelihood of it being disrupted atm, though I suppose if the Sinai militant groups pick up steam it is possible they could try to hit a ship going through.

    Turkey is more isolated, but I’m not sure that’s Davutoglu’s fault so much as events. Syria in particular has made a lot of new enemies for a lot of people and not too sure there is a way Turkey could have handled it without offending anyone. Supporting the rebels has offended Iran and Co., but refusing to aid them would have offended Saudi and Co., so sometimes you just have to pick.

    • Arguing is not rude, it is vital intellectual activity.

      However, 3 includes the oil pipelines, which is not just the Canal.

      And, there is a difference between the general importance of the Suez Canal for trade that could plausibly be directed through the Panama Canal, and its special utility (no. 2) at the moment for container ships too big for Panama or for which Panama is too expensive.

    • I strongly disagree. First, Turkey has been far more active for far longer than any other force. It has been clamoring for NATO action since one of its planes violated Syrian airspace and was shot down and it attempted to invoke the mutual defense provisions claiming that the plane was in international airspace. It got Patriot missiles in return. Second, it has been hosting the FSA meetings in hopes of restarting its neo-Ottoman dreams even as the FSA descends into infighting each time it meets. Third, in that vacuum Turkey has claimed a role as spokesman. Fourth the choice was not an isolated choice but part of Davutoglu’s noe-0Colonial foreign policy toward his backyard … though one must note that the newly discovered love of democrats comes after it wass one of Qaddafi’s last supporters (after all, Tayyip was a past winner of the Qaddafi Human Rights Prize)
      So, the question is whether Turkey could have handled the suituation without making a hash of something on its own doorstep. Talk about reckless!

  7. Some of the disinterest makes sense -at least to me. Eqypt as well as Syria and Iraq and… is seen to be in a longrunning stalemate, where one side is unlikely to decisively come out on top. In such a situation most happenings in those places can be dismissed as small details unlikely to be decisive. So we turn our attention elsewhere, because the actual information content (what did you learn that is important that you didn’t know before), is actually quite low.

    Not that the lamestream media, would provide much coverage if something momentous seemed to be happening.

  8. I shouldn’t miss saying that Juan Cole’s analysis is perfect and one of the best I have ever read, may be US embassy needs someone who can see facts like you sir

  9. Dr. Cole, correction on # 7:

    7. If devotees [i wouldn’t use the word “devotees”, but supporters or partisans as for any other political party] of political Islam give up [i wouldn’t say “give up” but forced to give up] on democracy because THE [NOT their] president, Muhammad Morsi, was deposed in Egypt, and if they turn instead to violent politics (i.e. to terrorism), that change would certainly have a huge impact on security in the United States.

    If anyone is causing violence, it is the military that deposed a legitimately elected president in a cold, well-planned and calculated coup. The street in Cairo/Egypt was manipulated to act through purposefully staged shortages of fuel, goods, and services. The WSJ piece was extremely clear about that in exposing how the coup d’etat was planned months prior to July 3rd.

    Having said that, what kind of rock solid guarantee do the Islamists have to participate in future elections? Is it going to be the same thing–i.e., if they won, would the military intervene another time and depose the president and cancel the majority in the parliament? They have none, and that’s why they are going to stay in the streets until the military acts violently and kills a bunch of them live on tv like it has already done.

    There is one more point that you also should have noted: the delegitimization of the liberal/secular wing in the Arab/Muslim countries. This group has shown very little regard to the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions and democracy. Liberals/seculars have allied themselves with the greatest threat to democracy in any democratic regime, and that’s the military. I highly advise you to read Federalist Paper #10 by James Madison in which he talks and guards against what he calls “factions”–or in this case fundamentalists or radicals from both sides of the political spectrum–with interests contrary to the rights of others or the nation as a whole. He does not advocate military coups, but he advocates for more democracy, more debates, and more participation.

    Democracy, as we know it, is pretty much finished and done in Egypt. It’s pure hardcore electoral authoritarianism now.

  10. >> . The Egyptian military provides a security umbrella to much of the Arab world, including to the small countries of the Oil Gulf and of the Arabian Peninsula along the Red Sea. The Middle East has 65 percent of the world’s known petroleum reserves, and produces about 30% of the world’s oil. ….. If Egypt becomes unstable and its instability is catching, American access to fuel and energy will be affected, as will that of many close American allies.

    For this reason we must ensure military dictatorships firmly tied to Western interests remain in power; of course in order to maintain the facade of support for democracy and freedoms, etc., we should create supine subservient classes who can provide he necessary cover to the naked military rule and support them with propaganda, ad-infinitum. Of course we never learn, be it Vietnam, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, etc., etc. What a sorry state of affairs.

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