Bumperstickers from Cairo

A sampling of the most commonly referred to and most frequently uttered myths and conventional wisdoms on the events in Egypt, each accompanied with the counter-argument.

Egypt rally 311 (photo credit: AP)
Egypt rally 311
(photo credit: AP)
Every crisis creates a punditocracy that sets the discourse, definesthe terminology and creates or perpetuates myths. Every crisismanufactures conventional wisdoms that become iron-clad truisms andproduces a critical language of absolute truths and irrefutabledeterminations. That’s the beauty of crises in a 24/7 frenzied mediacycle era and better yet, that’s the beauty of the punditocracy: it’snever wrong until reality forces a new set of conventional wisdoms.
So here is a sample list of the most commonly referred to and mostfrequently uttered (ad nauseum) myths and conventional wisdoms on the events inEgypt, each accompanied with the counter-argument.
Adisclaimer: a conventional wisdom nugget is not necessarily wrong and acliché of a slogan is not always nonsensical or untrue. Some areactually valid, especially in an ongoing, rolling crisis where theuncertainties are numerous and the variables aplenty.
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1. Hosni Mubarak is a staunch ally who was betrayed by the US.The US has provided Egypt with $1.3 billion annually since the mid-1970’s. Thousands of American M1A1 Abrams tanks are manufactured in Egypt. Most members of the top echelon of the Egyptian military were trained or educated in US military academies and schools. What did the US get in return for this strategic investment? Pulling Egypt away from the Soviet political orbit. Alas, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and disintegrated as an adversary. So for almost 20 years, Egypt has been enjoying a US financial and military umbrella and providing little in return.
Ah, you say, but they remained committed to the peace agreement with Israel. True. But isn’t that an Egyptian interest also? Oh, and by the way, in his glorious 30 years in power and his illustrious dedication to the peace accords, how many times did Mubarak visit Israel? Once. For Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. Nice of him.
But, you say, Egypt is an important component in the anti-Iran coalition. Maybe. A transition of power in Egypt and a strong military will not change this. The fear of a Shi’a-arc orchestrated from Teheran is not something Mubarak invented. It may outlast him.
Furthermore, Mubarak is an unpopular dictator who very inelegantly resisted every US half-mouthed request that he reform the political system. Egypt remains a key US ally, but Mubarak was, and is expendable. In this respect, the US did not betray an ally, but perhaps saved one in the long run.
2. Egypt may be a dictatorship, but it serves US interests.Really? This myth goes to the heart of two conventional wisdoms of “realist” foreign policy. The first is that a regional foreign policy is based on stability, attained and served best by a balance of power. Fair enough and true. In fact, I subscribe to the “realist” school just like the next Kissinger. The second is a formula of sorts: There is democracy or a military dictatorship or Islamic radicalism. The US aspires for the first but will be content with the second in order to prevent the third. Logical, right? Yes, except that urging Mubarak to leave and facilitating an “orderly transfer of power” doesn’t really interrupt this principle. In fact, there is a case to be made that by demanding Mubarak’s eventual departure, the US was doing exactly what the “realist” approach prescribes.
3. Israel could be next. If Obama deserted and sacrificed Mubarak, who knows what he may do to Israel.Even by Israeli standards of insecurity, this has to be one of the greatest fallacies of recent times. Do Israelis genuinely view their relations with the US as analogous in any way or form to US-Egypt relations? Are Americans prone to dismiss a shared-values, sister-democracy, dependable ally? If so, Israelis are urged to reconsider the tenets of this special relationship. If we are that unsure, then perhaps the foundations were never solid? While I happen to think that the US and Israel are beginning to show visible signs of diverging interests and that demographic trends in the US and certain Israeli policy displays are detrimental to the relationship, to even imagine that a US president and Congress would deliberately weaken relations is nothing short of idiocy.
4. The US just doesn’t get the Middle East. Democracy? The Muslim Brotherhood will rule and Egypt will become another IranYou have to love the “the US doesn’t get the Middle East” argument, usually delivered with a bitter patronizing tone. Obama? An Arab-loving novice. Hillary Clinton? An amateur. The State Department? They hate us. The CIA? They get everything wrong. Only we get it. Always. 63 years running.
First, not all the problems in the region are America’s fault. Shocking, right? The failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian deal has something to do with Israel and the Palestinians. Incomprehensible, but true. Furthermore, the US cannot conceivably fix everything in the region. If they try, the whiners and moaners in the Israeli media would have a complaint or two, no?
Second, this coming from the people who were surprised by the 1973 war, the first intifada, the second intifada, Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections in Gaza, Hizbullah’s rocket arsenal and knew exactly where Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were? Not to mention the people who change their minds about Iran’s nuclear timetable every several months?
No, the Americans don’t “get” the Middle East. Then again, nor do we. Then again, so what?As for the Muslim Brotherhood, it is unclear how politically potent they are. To be sure though, they are not anyone’s choice or cup of tea.
5. Democracy is not compatible with Islam. Let’s be honest, Egypt will not become a democracy overnight.Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria and to a lesser extent Lebanon and the Palestinians are all various forms of procedural democracy, responsive government and pluralistic political systems. None, of course, is a liberal democracy and none will become a Jeffersonian democracy but that should dispel the condescending notion that Muslims are incapable and culturally ill-suited to live in open systems.
Yet it is a form of convenient intellectual escapism. For decades Israel has rightfully argued that a durable peace cannot be achieved as long as Arabs are patently and inherently undemocratic. But when Tunisians, Egyptians and Lebanese go out and demand greater democracy, the Middle East-savvy and Arab-mavens in Israel are quick to dismiss it as a threat to stability. Get serious.
6. The US is flip-flopping, sending contradictory messages about Egypt.True, but so what? This is not a presidential political campaign. This is a foreign policy crisis with a high degree of uncertainty. Change of emphasis and tone is allowed and should be forgiven.
Obama had no readily available policy contingency plans at his disposal. He vacillated for four days, but with the Million Man March in Tahrir Square last week, he made up his mind. An orderly transition of power has to take place. To be fair, that is exactly what is happening, even if regression remains a danger. Stability has been the strategic objective and stability has been – to this point – achieved.
Criticism that the US is ambiguous and unclear is true on a tactical level but strategically, the US is unequivocally clear: Egypt remains an ally and Mubarak has to go. Whether it’s now, tomorrow or in July is immaterial.
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.