Middle Israel: It started in '89

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has watched helplessly as his three decades in power went up in smoke.

Mubarak with Sadat 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mubarak with Sadat 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Like a defensive soccer team sustaining its only and fatal goal in the last seconds of injury time, Hosni Mubarak watched helplessly as his three decades in power went up in smoke.
Time and again, this poor-man’s pharaoh progressed in life thanks to his passivity. No one is belittling his well-deserved rise to the command of his country’s air force, a feat that followed several years’ training in Moscow during which he had to demonstrate not only loyalty but also ability. However, in terms of Egypt’s success during the ’73 war, his role was limited, as what downed more than 100 IAF planes was not Mubarak’s pilots, but Soviet-made missiles, which he neither created nor activated.
Still, like Chauncey, the gardener who became president in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, Mubarak was there, and emerged from that presence a major symbol of Egypt’s relative success in that war. And as the lucky often have it, this happenstance was followed by yet more luck when Anwar Sadat, seeking an unpretentious deputy, picked the young general while passing over the much more senior and successful Abdul Ghani Gamassi, the architect of Egypt’s crossing of the canal.
Mubarak was also there to witness from close range Sadat’s daring diplomacy, at one point joining him for a visit in Beersheba. Alas, though he loved hosting antagonists and playing mediator whenever possible, Mubarak never actually brokered a dramatic diplomatic deal, and never personally relinquished anything for the sake of a diplomatic move.
Mubarak was also wise enough to avoid the fanaticism he witnessed firsthand while being there as bullets pierced Sadat’s chest. And Mubarak was also careful to avoid the kind of adventurism he saw Saddam Hussein practice repeatedly, or the kind of charlatanism he saw Yasser Arafat display while refusing to ceremonially sign one of the interim deals with Israel, with Mubarak at his side.
In all these, Mubarak’s political caution, mental poise and disdain for change paid off.
Alas, there was one moment when history called, and he was deaf. It didn’t happen this week, but in 1989.
BACK THEN, he remained unperturbed the morning after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even after the violent removal of his friend Nicolae Ceausescu in live broadcast. The entire world understood that freedom was marching globally. Not only the East Bloc, but also Latin America soon shed despotism, and much of sub-Saharan Africa was also parting with its dictatorial past. History, therefore, begged an Arab choice, and more than anyone else’s the choice was to be Mubarak’s, as the leader of the largest and strongest Arab nation.
Mubarak didn’t flinch. He chose despotism, running repeatedly in fake elections, muzzling opponents, distributing political booty, controlling the media and abandoning the masses to the destitution that the whole world has now finally come to discuss. And what Mubarak chose, the rest of the Arabs followed.
That is how the Arab world emerged from the Cold War as the entire world’s political black hole. At a time when leaders in the second and third worlds were seeking new ways to deliver at least one of man’s two most fundamental political demands, freedom and prosperity, Arab leaders rejected both.
Mubarak could have prevented all this and earned a place in history on the scale of Nelson Mandela’s had he seen where the world is headed and set out to break the Arab world’s path to freedom. History would have forgiven him had he done it gradually or piecemeal.
Alas, being the overly cautious and hopelessly unimaginative soldier they made of him back in Moscow, he failed his career’s main test, which came in 1989. The bill he received this week was for that.
THE US had pampered Egypt since Sadat bolted Moscow’s orbit and defected to Washington’s in the 1970s. Cairo received from six successive American presidents an annual $1.5 billion in foreign aid, most of which went to the military.
In fact, the already dwarfed civilian aid of $400 million a year was halved two years ago.
Now this might have made sense so long as the Egyptians were part of the defensive line America built opposite the Soviet bloc, which in Egypt’s neighborhood included Libya, Ethiopia and South Yemen. By this logic, aid to Egypt should have been reassessed once its main cause, the Soviet Union, had fallen. It wasn’t.
Instead, the US continued to line the regime’s pockets and pump the military while the population swelled from 40 million on the day Sadat died to at least 75 million today, half of whom are illiterate and live on a monthly $60.
Had Washington understood 1989, it would have acknowledged that the Egyptian people, just like any other, will someday realize they are being abused and demand a life. To preempt this, Washington should have focused its aid not on the military but on the economy. Now what’s done is done, but as for tomorrow, America will have to tell Egypt that its aim is not to make this or that regime survive, but to help the Egyptian people thrive. And this will be accomplished not by shipping yet more F-16s, howitzers and Abrams tanks to the Nile, but by building schools, hospitals, kindergartens, infirmaries, training centers, assembly lines and anything else that will foster the dignity that the Egyptian people have now demanded in a way that resounded the world over.
ONE OF THE most absurd statements made anywhere this week was Syrian President Bashar Assad’s suggestion that he fears no Egyptian-style upheaval because he, unlike Mubarak, has been “resisting Israel.” For decades, the same Arab leaders who abused their citizens were the ones who nurtured the dictum that what plagues the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli conflict. If only the Jews’ land would shrink to a pinpoint, then the world’s most volatile region would be happy, went the logic to which so many gullible Europeans and Americans lent an ear.
Who, Mr. Assad, made Mohamed Bouazizi, torch himself to death, and thus touch the current Arab awakening? Did he give a damn about Israelis and Palestinians? He said what he wanted: He wanted a job. He was an educated man who watched helplessly while his land was being robbed by its own unelected leaders.
That’s what his problem was, as is the problem of some 500,000 jobless Egyptian university graduates, and a million Syrians who must flock to Lebanon to eke out a living.
Now you come and play the old trick of telling them that their problem is not your leadership, but the Jews’ presence. Chances are high that a post-Mubarak Egypt, rather than get down to the business of economic creation and moral cleansing, will quickly follow your time-honored pattern. It’s been tried before, and was indeed successful – but only for so long. Eventually, the leaders who stole their people’s freedom and wealth while systematically slandering Israel were removed – by the people, who then made friends with Israel, and began improving their lives. That is what happened in 1989 in Europe, and that is what someday will happen in the Middle East.