By Barry Rubin
There is no good policy for the United States regarding the uprising in Egypt, but the Obama administration may be adopting something close to the worst option. It seems to be adopting a policy that, while somewhat balanced, is pushing the Egyptian regime out of power. That situation could not be more dangerous and might be the biggest disaster for the region and Western interests since the Iranian revolution three decades ago.
Experts and news media seem to be overwhelmingly optimistic, just as they generally were in Iran’s case. Wishful thinking is to some extent replacing serious analysis. Indeed, the alternative outcome is barely presented: This could lead to an Islamist Egypt, if not now, then in several years.
There are two basic possibilities: the regime will stabilize (with or without President Hosni Mubarak), or power will be up for grabs. Here are the precedents for the latter situation:
- Remember the Iranian revolution of 1979, when all sorts of people poured out into the streets to demand freedom? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now president.
- Remember the Beirut Spring of 2005 when people poured out into the streets to demand freedom? Hezbollah is now running Lebanon.
- Remember the democracy and free elections among the Palestinians in 2006? Hamas is now running the Gaza Strip.
- Remember democracy in Algeria? Tens of thousands of people were killed in the ensuing civil war that begin in 1991 and endured over a decade.
Here’s the problem. On one hand, everyone knows that Mr. Mubarak’s government, based on the regime that has been running Egypt since the morning of July 23, 1952, is a dictatorship with a great deal of corruption and repression.
But this Egyptian government has generally been a good ally of the United States, though it has let Washington down at times. Its loss of power to an anti-American government would be a tremendous defeat for the United States. Moreover, a populist and radical nationalist – much less an Islamist – government could reignite the Arab-Israeli conflict and cost tens of thousands of lives.
So the United States has a stake in the survival of the regime, if not so much of Mubarak personally, or the succession of his son, Gamal Mubarak, now reported to have fled to Britain. This means that US policy should put an emphasis on the regime’s survival. And this regime might be better off without the Mubaraks, since it can argue that it is making a fresh start and will gain political capital from getting rid of the hated dictator.
On the other hand, the United States wants to show that it supports reform and democracy, believing that this will make it more popular among the masses in the Arab world, as well as being the “right” and “American” thing to do. Also, if the revolution does win, the thought is that it is more likely to be friendly to America if the United States shows, in advance, its support for change.
This “pro-democracy” approach is based on the belief that Egypt might well produce a moderate, democratic, pro-Western state that will then be more able to resist an Islamist challenge. Perhaps the Islamists can be incorporated into this system. Perhaps, some say (and it is a very loud voice in the American mass media) that the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t really a threat at all.
Of course, it is possible to mix these two positions, and that is what President Obama is trying to do.
On paper, this is an ideal policy: Mubarak should reform; the opposition should not use violence; and everything will turn out all right. Unfortunately, it has little to do with reality. If the regime does what Mr. Obama wants it to do, it will fall. And what is going to replace it? By his lack of outright support for Mubarak, the president is demoralizing an ally.
No matter what the United States says or does at this point, it is not going to reap the gratitude of millions of Egyptians as a liberator. For the new anti-regime leaders will blame America for its past support of Mubarak, opposition to Islamism, backing of Israel, cultural influence, and incidents of alleged imperialism.
This is not the first time this kind of problem has come up. The most obvious precedent is Iran in 1978 and 1979. At that time, the US strategy was to do precisely what Obama is doing now: announce support for the government, but press it to make reforms. The shah did not turn to repressive measures, partly because he didn’t have US support. So the revolution built up, and the regime fell. The result wasn’t good.
There is a second part of this story as well. Experts on television, consulting with the government, assured everyone that the revolution would be moderate, the Islamists couldn’t win, and even if they did, this new leadership could be dealt with. That didn’t turn out too well, either.
Even more forgotten is how the situation in Egypt came to be in the first place. Back in 1952, US policymakers supported – it was not a US-engineered coup, but they were favorable to – an army takeover. The idea was that the officers would be friendly to the United States, hostile to the Soviet Union and communism, and more likely to enjoy mass support.
The pattern is for US policy to believe that getting rid of a corrupt regime – the Egyptian monarchy in 1952; Iran's shah in 1978; Mubarak now – and supporting a new, popular regime with a seemingly appealing ideology will produce stability and benefit US interests. In fact, the last two times, this strategy resulted in the two biggest disasters in the history of US Middle East policy.
And this is the strategy policymakers and experts are endorsing today.
No organized, moderate opposition
Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the reformist movement, makes the following argument against my analysis:
“Mubarak has convinced the United States and Europe that they only have a choice between two options – either they accept this authoritarian regime, or Egypt will fall into the hands of the likes of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda….Mubarak uses the specter of Islamist terror to prevent a third way: the country’s democratization. But Washington needs to know that the support of a repressive leadership only creates the appearance of stability. In truth, it promotes the radicalization of the people.”
This is a reasonable formulation. But one might also say that nothing would promote the radicalization of the people more than having a new radical regime in power – the Islamist regime that would probably rise in the absence of any other organized opposition.
That is not to say that there aren’t good, moderate, pro-democratic people in Egypt, but they have little power, money, or organization. Though opposition leaders have now formed a loose coalition backing Mr. ElBaradei, this backing includes leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that they are dependent on the Muslim Brotherhood is shown by ElBaradei's negotiating with that group for a coalition. Much of his past support has also, in fact, come from the Brotherhood. And he himself has no governing experience, no independent base, and limited abilities to govern.
This hardly constitutes an organized, moderate opposition. Even the most important moderate organization of the past, the Kifaya movement that emerged in 2004, has already been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rajab Hilal Hamida, a member of the Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliament, proves that you don’t have to be moderate to run in elections:
"From my point of view, bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi are not terrorists in the sense accepted by some. I support all their activities, since they are a thorn in the side of the Americans and the Zionists.…[On the other hand,] he who kills Muslim citizens is neither a jihad fighter nor a terrorist, but a criminal murderer. We must call things by their proper names!"
A study of the Brotherhood members of Egypt’s parliament shows how radical they have been in their speeches and proposals.
But it is also being said that the Brotherhood is not so popular in Egypt. Then why did the party get 20 percent of the vote in a 2005 election, even when they were repressed and cheated? This was not just some protest vote, because voters had the option of voting for secular reformers, and very few of them did.
The deeper question is: Why does the Brotherhood not engage in violence in Egypt?
The answer is not that it is moderate, but that it has felt the time was not ripe. One deterrent has been the knowledge that it would be crushed by the government, and its leaders sent to concentration camps and tortured or even executed. It is no accident that Hamas and Hezbollah – unrestrained by weak governments – engaged in violent terrorism, while the Muslim Brotherhood facing strong and determined regimes in Egypt and Jordan did not.
Unfortunately, US influence on these events, already rejected by Egypt’s government, is minimal. It is morally good to speak about freedom and seem to support the protestors, but also quite dangerous. Such support will not reap the gratitude of the Egyptian masses in the future. The Egyptian elite wants to save itself, and if it has to dump Mubarak to do so – as we saw in Tunisia – the armed forces and the rest will do so. But if the regime itself falls, creating a vacuum, that is going to be a very bad outcome.
Consider this point: Egypt’s resources and financial capital are limited. There aren’t enough jobs, land, or wealth. How would a new regime deal with these problems and mobilize popular support? The more probable outcome is that a government would win support through demagoguery: blame America, blame the West, blame Israel, and proclaim that Islam is the answer. That’s how it has been in the Middle East in too many places.
The emphasis for US policy, then, should be put on supporting the Egyptian regime generally, whatever rhetoric is made about reforms. The rulers in Cairo should have no doubt that the United States is behind them. If it is necessary to change leadership or make concessions, that is something the US government can encourage behind the scenes.
But Obama’s rhetoric seems dangerously reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter’s in 1978, regarding Iran. He has made it sound – by wording and nuance, if not by intention – that Washington no longer backs the Egyptian government.
Without the confidence to resist this upheaval, the Egyptian system could collapse, leaving a vacuum that is probably not going to be filled by friendly leaders.
Nothing would make me happier than to say that the United States should give full support for reform, to cheer on the insurgents without reservation. But unfortunately that is neither the most honest analysis nor the one required by US interests.