The region: The ambiguity of Mubarak's regime

Stuck in a parked vehicle is better than getting run down, but not as good as making progress.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is 80. After over a quarter-century in office he is ready for more. But how much longer will his rule - or regime - continue? And under him, Egypt has not done so badly, or has it? Well that depends. He has kept Egypt stable and out of war, no mean feat, and even delivered a bit of economic development, though recently there have been bread riots. But there has been no big improvement. Rights have been limited and suppression periodic yet this falls well short of the police states ruling in Syria and, formerly, Iraq. Corruption is astronomical. One is reminded of the old Egyptian joke where the president's chauffeur explains the difference among his last three bosses. Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-1970) always turned left; Anwar al-Sadat (1970-1981) always turned right. Mubarak ordered: Signal left, signal right, then park. HAS EGYPT been parked for the last 27 years? In some respects, yes. Being parked is better than getting run down by a speeding auto, though not better than making steady progress. I can't talk about the ambiguity of Mubarak's regime without thinking of that great old Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler song, first recorded by Cab Calloway's orchestra in 1931. It begins: "I don't want you / But I hate to lose you / You've got me in between the devil and the deep blue sea." For his own people, Israel, and the United States (or the West in general), Mubarak's government is most unsatisfactory in very many ways. Egyptians face mismanagement and limits on freedom. Israel has a peace but a cold one. The United States and the West gets nominal cooperation from Cairo coupled with the government's lavish use of anti-Americanism, radical Arab nationalism, and even Islamist rhetoric to keep the masses mobilized on its side. Still, what's the alternative: violent instability or a radical Islamist revolution? Or is there a realistic hope of something better, of a moderate democratic state? Here, good intentions or wishful thinking should never be given precedent over realistic appraisal. In assessing a political situation, one should always remember politics is the art of the possible. Egypt is a country with "too many" people and not enough resources. There are no easy solutions. "I ought to cross you off my list / But when you come knocking at my door / Fate seems to give my heart a twist / And I come running back for more," sang Calloway. AFTER ALL, that heart-twisting fate involves things like Hamas's takeover, Iraq's internal war, Hizballah's aggression, and Iran's expansionism plus nuclear weapons' drive. We are used to thinking of Egypt as the most important of all Arab countries, and that's still true relatively speaking though far less than a decade or two or three ago. By the force of realpolitik, the foreigners conclude about Mubarak's regime (Calloway again): "I should hate you / But I guess I love you / You've got me in between the devil and the deep blue sea." Thus, the West and Israel keep hoping. Maybe Egypt will restrain Hamas in the Gaza Strip and give vigorous backing to a serious peace process. Or possibly Cairo will lead a moderate Arab coalition against the forces of the Iran-Syria led HISH (Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hizbullah) alliance. (A Muslim government official recently told me he calls them the Addams family). After all, these actions are in Egypt's own interests, aren't they? Egypt's interests, though, are in playing both sides simultaneously to the greatest extent possible. An Egyptian diplomat actually told me not long ago that he had advised Israeli Arabs to pretend to be good citizens and demand to join the army so they could better subvert the country. State-owned Egyptian newspapers blame all the terrorism in Iraq on American conspiracies. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to top-quality tailors to design its sheeps' clothing so that it can better wolf down Egypt. Credulous, or ill-intentioned, Westerners are all too willing to accept that the country's Islamist brothers are really moderates. It's easy to do that: Just ignore their program and everything they say in Arabic. Just because they don't like the competition - al-Qaida or Iran - doesn't make them moderates. THERE IS a decent, moderate, democratic-minded opposition. But it is far too weak and poorly organized. Even the main "reformist" group has now been taken over by the Brotherhood. Who would you bet on in a showdown? No contest. So what comes next? Gamal Mubarak, the president's 45-year-old son, who is deputy secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party? Perhaps some ex-general turned provincial governor or another official? In social terms, the country is becoming increasingly "Islamic" according to the more restrictive standards demanded by Islamists. Does that mean a political swing as well? Not necessarily, but the danger bears close watching. Egypt is famous for muddling through. That's the most likely outcome, but nobody should be too complacent in assuming that's the way things have to be. The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal and Turkish Studies.