When polled recently, 59% of Egyptians said they backed the Islamists and only
27% favored modernizers. 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.
This is its first real international crisis.
And it seems to be adopting a policy that, while somewhat balanced, is pushing
the Egyptian regime out of power. The 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.
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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.
What’s puzzling here is that a lot of the
enthusiasm is based on points like saying that the demonstrators are leaderless
and spontaneous. But that’s precisely the situation where someone who does have
leaders, is well organized, and knows precisely what they want takes
Look at Tunisia. The elite stepped in with the support of the army
and put in a coalition of leadership, including both old elements and
oppositionists. We don’t know what will happen but there is a reasonable hope of
stability and democracy. This is not the situation in Egypt where the elite
seems to have lost confidence and the army seems passive.
Suleiman, long-time head of intelligence, as vice-president and former Air Force
chief (the job Mubarak himself used to have) Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister
stabilize the situation? Perhaps. He is an able man. But to have the man who has
organized repression running the country is not exactly a step toward
There are two basic possibilities: the regime will
stabilize (with or without Mubarak) or power will be up for grabs.
here are the precedents for the latter situation: Remember the Iranian
revolution when all sorts of people poured out into the streets to demand
freedom? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now president.
Remember the Beirut spring
when people poured out into the streets to demand freedom? Hizbullah is now
Remember the democracy among the Palestinians and free
elections? Hamas is now running the Gaza Strip.
Remember democracy in
Algeria? Tens of thousands of people were killed in the ensuing civil
It doesn’t have to be that way but the precedents are pretty
What did Egyptians tell the Pew poll recently when asked
whether they liked “modernizers” or “Islamists"? Islamists: 59%; Modernizers:
27%. Now maybe they will vote for a Westernized guy in a suit who promises a
liberal democracy but do you want to bet the Middle East on it? Here’s the
On one hand, everyone knows that President Hosni 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
This Egyptian government has generally been a good ally of
the United States, yet has let Washington down at times. For example, the
Mubarak government has continued to purvey anti-American propaganda to its
people; held back on solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict (it did not endorse
the 2000 Clinton plan, though I have good sources saying Mubarak said later he
regretted that decision); has not taken a strong public stance on pressuring
Iran; and so on.
For a long time, it was said that Egypt was the most
important US ally in the Arabic-speaking world. There is truth in this but it has
been less true lately, though due more to passivity in foreign policy than to
Clearly, though, Egypt is an American ally generally, and its
loss 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-Israel conflict and cost tens of thousands of
The US's gamble
So the United States has a stake in the survival of the regime, if
not so much that of Mubarak personally or the succession of his son, Gamal. This
means that US policy should put an emphasis on the regime’s survival.
regime might be better off without the Mubaraks, since it can argue it is making
a fresh start and will gain political capital from getting rid of the hated
Given the weakness of designated successor, Gamal Mubarak, who
is probably too weak to deal with the situation, the regime might well be a lot
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, it is more likely
to be friendly to America if the United States shows in advance its support for
Finally, the “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.
So, in this point of view, US policy should favor the
forces of change.
Of course, it is possible to mix these two positions
and that is what President Obama is trying to do.
Thus, Obama said, “I’ve
always said to [Mubarak] that making sure that they are moving forward on reform
– political reform, economic reform – is absolutely critical to the long-term
well-being of Egypt, and you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being
displayed on the streets...
Violence is not the answer in solving these
problems in Egypt, so the government has to be careful about not resorting to
violence and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to
violence. I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order
to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech,
there’s certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are
universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression – people being able to use
social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and
express their concerns.”
On paper, this is an ideal policy: Mubarak
should reform; the opposition should not use violence; and everything will turn
out all right. Again, this is the perfect policy in theory, and I’m not being
sarcastic at all here.
Unfortunately, it has little to do with
For if the regime does what Obama wants it to do, it will fall.
And what is going to replace it? And by his lack of support – his language goes
further than it might have done – the president is demoralizing an
And it is all very well to believe idealistically that even if
Egyptians are longing to be free, one has to define what “free” means to them.
Also, the ruler who emerges is likely to be from the best organized, disciplined
group. People in Russia in 1917 were yearning to be free also and they got the
In Iran, where people are yearning to be free, the Obama
administration did nothing.
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, incidents of alleged imperialism, and for not being Muslim.
anyone thinks the only problem is Israel, they understand nothing.
is not the first time this kind of problem has come up and it is revealing and
amazing that the precedents are not being fully explained. The most obvious is
Iran in 1978-1979. At that time, as I wrote in my book Paved with Good
Intentions: The American Experience and Iran, 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 go to repression partly because he didn’t
have US support. The revolution built up and the regime fell. The result wasn’t
There is a second part of this story also.
television and 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. So either Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
couldn’t triumph – Islamists running a country, what a laugh! – or he couldn’t
really mean what he said. That didn’t turn out too well either.
forgotten is that, regarding Egypt, that’s how the whole thing started! Back in
1952, as I wrote in my book, The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, US
policymakers supported – don’t exaggerate this, 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 USSR and
communism, and more likely to enjoy mass support.
In other words,
policymakers and experts are endorsing a strategy today that has led to two of
the biggest disasters in the history of US Middle East policy. And now it is
even worse, since we have these precedents and particularly the point about what
happens when Islamists take power.
There is no organized moderate group
in Egypt. Even the most important past such organization, the Kifaya movement,
has already been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. Since 2007, its leader
has been Abdel Wahhab al-Messiri, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and
a virulent anti-Semite.
Muhammad 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-Qaida. Of course, that is not exactly
true. 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.
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 radical regime. Even ElBaradei
says that if he were to be president, he would recognize Hamas as ruler of the
Gaza Strip and end all sanctions against it.
That is not to say that
there aren’t good, moderate, pro-democratic people in Egypt but they have little
power, money, or organization. Indeed, Egypt is the only Arab country where many
of the reformers went over to the Islamists believing – I think quite wrongly –
that they could control the Islamists and dominate them once the alliance got
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. In my book, The Long War for Freedom, I expressed
my strong sympathy for the liberal reformers but also the many reasons why they
are unlikely to win and cannot compete very well with the Islamists.
have pointed out that the Brotherhood’s new leader sounds quite like al- Qaida
and has called for war on both Israel and America.
And here is Rajab
Hilal Hamida, a member of the Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliament, who 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
They want an Islamist radical state, ruled by Shari’a and at
war with Israel and the United States.
Then it is also being said that
the Brotherhood is not so popular in Egypt. Then why did they get 20 percent of
the vote in an election 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 mass media is full of “experts” who also
argue that the Brotherhood is not involved in terrorism. Well, partly true. It
supports terrorism against Americans in Iraq and against Israelis, especially
backing Hamas. In major cases of terrorism in Egypt – for example the
assassination of Farag Fouda and the attempting killing of Naguib Mahfouz –
Brotherhood clerics were involved in inciting the violence beforehand and
applauding it afterward.
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. Knowing that it would be crushed by the
government, and its leaders sent to concentration camps and tortured or even
executed, as happened under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s, is a
deterrent. It is no accident that Hamas and Hizbullah – unrestrained by weak
governments – engaged in violent terrorism while the Muslim Brotherhood, facing
strong and determined regimes in Egypt and Jordan, did not.
all of this, 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 protesters but also quite dangerous and will not reap the gratitude
of the Egyptian masses in the future. After all, aside from the likely
radicalism of their leaders, a revolutionary regime would be hostile toward the
United States since America would be blamed for supporting the Egyptian
dictatorship for decades. President Obama will not charm them into
The Egyptian elite wants to save itself and if they have 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. If I believed that something better could emerge that
would be stable and greatly benefit Egyptians, I’d be for that.
that really the case? Consider this point: Egypt’s resources and capital are
limited. There aren’t enough jobs or land or wealth. How would a new regime deal
with these problems and mobilize popular support? One route would be to embark
on a decades-long development program to make the desert green, etc. Yet with so
much competition, where would the money come from? How could Egypt try to gain
markets already held by China, for example? More likely 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. In two cases – Lebanon and the Gaza Strip –
democracy (though other factors were also involved) has produced anti-democratic
Islamist regimes that endorse terrorism and are allied to Iran and
Is America ready to bet that Egypt will be different? And on what
evidentiary basis would that be done? 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
But Obama’s rhetoric – the exact opposite of what it was during
the upheavals in Iran which he should have supported – seems dangerously
reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter 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.
And that government has even said
Without the confidence to resist this upheaval, the Egyptian
system could collapse, leaving a vacuum that is not going to be filled by
That is potentially disastrous for the United States
and the Middle East. There will be many who will say that an anti-American
Islamist government allied with Iran and ready to restart war with Israel
“cannot” emerge. That’s a pretty big risk to take on the word of those who have
been so often wrong in the past.The writer is director of the Global
Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East
Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.