The Egyptian multitudes on the streets of Cairo are a stunning sight. With their banners calling for freedom and an end to the reign of President Hosni Mubarak the story these images tell is a simple one as old as time.
On the one hand we have the young, dispossessed and weak protesters. And on the other we have the old, corrupt and tyrannical Mubarak. Hans Christian Andersen taught us who to support when we were wee tots.
But does his wisdom apply in this case?
Certainly it is true that the regime is populated by old men. Mubarak is
82 years old. It is also true that his regime is corrupt and
tyrannical. Since the Muslim Brotherhood spinoff Islamic Jihad terror
group murdered Mubarak’s predecessor president Anwar Sadat in 1981,
Egypt has been governed by emergency laws that ban democratic freedoms.
Mubarak has consistently rejected US pressure to ease regime repression
and enact liberal reforms in governance.
This reality has led many American commentators across the political
spectrum to side enthusiastically with the rioters. A prestigious
working group on Egypt formed in recent months by Middle East experts
from Left and Right issued a statement over the weekend calling for the
Obama administration to dump Mubarak and withdraw its support for the
Egyptian regime. It recommended further that the administration force
Mubarak to abdicate and his regime to fall by suspending all economic
and military assistance to Egypt for the duration.
The blue ribbon panel’s recommendations were applauded by its members’
many friends across the political spectrum. For instance, the
conservative Weekly Standard’s editor William Kristol praised the panel
on Sunday and wrote, “It’s time for the US government to take an active
role… to bring about a South Korea/Philippines/Chile-like transition in
Egypt, from an American-supported dictatorship to an American-supported
and popularly legitimate liberal democracy.”
The problem with this recommendation is that it is based entirely on the
nature of Mubarak’s regime. If the regime was the biggest problem, then
certainly removing US support for it would make sense. However, the
character of the protesters is not liberal.
Indeed, their character is a bigger problem than the character of the regime they seek to overthrow.
According to a Pew opinion survey of Egyptians from June 2010, 59
percent said they back Islamists. Only 27% said they back modernizers.
Half of Egyptians support Hamas. Thirty percent support Hizbullah and
20% support al Qaida. Moreover, 95% of them would welcome Islamic
influence over their politics. When this preference is translated into
actual government policy, it is clear that the Islam they support is the
al Qaida Salafist version.
Eighty two percent of Egyptians support executing adulterers by stoning,
77% support whipping and cutting the hands off thieves. 84% support
executing any Muslim who changes his religion.
When given the opportunity, the crowds on the street are not shy about
showing what motivates them. They attack Mubarak and his new Vice
President Omar Suleiman as American puppets and Zionist agents. The US,
protesters told CNN’s Nick Robertson, is controlled by Israel. They hate
and want to destroy Israel. That is why they hate Mubarak and Suleiman.
WHAT ALL of this makes clear is that if the regime falls, the successor
regime will not be a liberal democracy. Mubarak’s military
authoritarianism will be replaced by Islamic totalitarianism. The US’s
greatest Arab ally will become its greatest enemy. Israel’s peace
partner will again become its gravest foe.
Understanding this, Israeli officials and commentators have been nearly
unanimous in their negative responses to what is happening in Egypt. The
IDF, the national security council, all intelligence agencies and the
government as well as the media have all agreed that Israel’s entire
regional approach will have to change dramatically in the event that
Egypt’s regime is overthrown.
None of the scenarios under discussion are positive.
What has most confounded Israeli officials and commentators alike has
not been the strength of the anti-regime protests, but the American
response to them. Outside the far Left, commentators from all major
newspapers, radio and television stations have variously characterized
the US response to events in Egypt as irrational, irresponsible,
catastrophic, stupid, blind, treacherous, and terrifying.
They have pointed out that the Obama administration’s behavior – as well
as that of many of its prominent conservative critics – is liable to
have disastrous consequences for the US’s other authoritarian Arab
allies, for Israel and for the US itself.
The question most Israelis are asking is why are the Americans behaving
so destructively? Why are President Barack Obama and Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton charting a course that will necessarily lead to the
transformation of Egypt into the first Salafist Islamic theocracy? And
why are conservative commentators and Republican politicians urging them
to be even more outspoken in their support for the rioters in the
Does the US not understand what will happen in the region as a result of
its actions? Does the US really fail to understand what will happen to
its strategic interests in the Middle East if the Muslim Brotherhood
either forms the next regime or is the power behind the throne of the
next regime in Cairo?
Distressingly, the answer is that indeed, the US has no idea what it is
doing. The reason the world’s only (quickly declining) superpower is
riding blind is because its leaders are trapped between two irrational,
narcissistic policy paradigms and they can’t see their way past them.
The first paradigm is former president George W. Bush’s democracy agenda and its concomitant support for open elections.
Bush supporters and former administration officials have spent the last
month since the riots began in Tunisia crowing that events prove Bush’s
push for democratization in the Arab world is the correct approach.
The problem is that while Bush’s diagnosis of the dangers of the
democracy deficit in the Arab world was correct, his antidote for
solving this problem was completely wrong.
Bush was right that tyranny breeds radicalism and instability and is therefore dangerous for the US.
But his belief that free elections would solve the problem of Arab
radicalism and instability was completely wrong. At base, Bush’s belief
was based on a narcissistic view of Western values as universal.
When, due to US pressure, the Palestinians were given the opportunity to
vote in open and free elections in 2006, they voted for Hamas and its
totalitarian agenda. When due to US pressure, the Egyptians were given
limited freedom to choose their legislators in 2005, where they could
they elected the totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood to lead them.
The failure of his elections policy convinced Bush to end his support for elections in his last two years in office.
Frustratingly, Bush’s push for elections was rarely criticized on its
merits. Under the spell of the other policy paradigm captivating
American foreign policy elites – anti-colonialism – Bush’s leftist
opponents never argued that the problem with his policy is that it
falsely assumes that Western values are universal values. Blinded by
their anti-Western dogma, they claimed that his bid for freedom was
nothing more than a modern-day version of Christian missionary
It is this anti-colonialist paradigm, with its foundational assumption
that that the US has no right to criticize non-Westerners that has
informed the Obama administration’s foreign policy. It was the
anti-colonialist paradigm that caused Obama not to support the
pro-Western protesters seeking the overthrow of the Iranian regime in
the wake of the stolen 2009 presidential elections.
As Obama put it at the time, “It’s not productive, given the history of
US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling, the US president meddling
in the Iranian elections.”
And it is this anti-colonialist paradigm that has guided Obama’s
courtship of the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian regimes and his
unwillingness to lift a hand to help the March 14 movement in Lebanon.
MOREOVER, SINCE the paradigm claims that the non-Western world’s
grievances towards the West are legitimate, Obama’s Middle East policy
is based on the view that the best way to impact the Arab world is by
joining its campaign against Israel. This was the central theme of
Obama’s speech before an audience dominated by Muslim Brotherhood
members in Cairo in June 2009.
Like the pro-democracy paradigm, the anti-colonialist paradigm is
narcissistic. Whereas Western democracy champions believe that all
people are born with the same Western liberal democratic values,
post-colonialists believe that non-Westerners are nothing more than
victims of the West. They are not responsible for any of their own
pathologies because they are not actors. Only Westerners (and Israelis)
are actors. Non-Westerners are objects. And like all objects, they
cannot be held responsible for anything they do because they are wholly
controlled by forces beyond their control.
Anti-colonialists by definition must always support the most
anti-Western forces as “authentic.” In light of Mubarak’s 30-year
alliance with the US, it makes sense that Obama’s instincts would place
the US president on the side of the protesters.
SO THERE we have it. The US policy towards Egypt is dictated by the
irrational narcissism of two opposing sides to a policy debate that has
nothing to do with reality.
Add to that Obama’s electoral concern about looking like he is on the
right side of justice and we have a US policy that is wholly
antithetical to US interests.
This presents a daunting, perhaps insurmountable challenge for the US’s
remaining authoritarian Arab allies. In Jordan and Saudi Arabia, until
now restive publics have been fearful of opposing their leaders because
the US supports them. Now that the US is abandoning its most important
ally and siding with its worst enemies, the Hashemites and the Sauds
don’t look so powerful to their Arab streets. The same can be said for
the Kuwaiti leadership and the pro-American political forces in Iraq.
As for Israel, America’s behavior towards Egypt should put to rest the
notion that Israel can make further territorial sacrifices in places
like the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley in exchange for US security
guarantees. US behavior today – and the across-the-board nature of
American rejection of Mubarak – is as clear a sign as one can find that
US guarantees are not credible.
As Prof. Barry Rubin wrote this week, “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.”
Unfortunately, given the cluelessness of the US foreign policy debate, this situation is only likely to grow worse.
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