Washington Watch: Defiantly deaf dictators doomed

today Egyptians are demonstrating in massive numbers against Mubarak, angry that a court had sentenced him “only” to life in prison.

Former Egyptian president Mubarak in court 370 (photo credit: Reuters screenshot)
Former Egyptian president Mubarak in court 370
(photo credit: Reuters screenshot)
Hosni Mubarak is the living – and slowly dying – symbol of dictators deaf to their people.
He thought he could divert their frustration against his repressive regime by stirring up anger toward Israel. It worked only partially; the peace treaty with Israel remains unfulfilled and unpopular in Egypt largely because he failed to build a constituency for peace. But it didn’t secure his own future, as history has painfully proven.
I attended a meeting with Mubarak several years ago in Washington when he was asked about the intensity of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel invective in the Egyptian media. He denied any responsibility, insisting, with a straight face, that Egypt had a free press and he couldn’t control it. And almost as an afterthought, he said his people occasionally need to “let off steam.”
In other words, better they take out their anger and frustration on the Jews than on me.
But it worked only partially. Today Egyptians are demonstrating in massive numbers against him, angry that a court had sentenced him “only” to life in prison for his role in the deaths of several hundred unarmed protesters during last year’s revolution that overthrew his 30-year dictatorship.
They were outraged that he hadn’t gotten the death penalty.
Disappointed Egyptians may take their revenge on the presidential ambitions of Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, who hopes to overcome that association by campaigning as the law and order candidate in the June 16-17 runoff. His opponent, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the sentence was too light and suggested that as president he would “renew the trial and avenge the blood of the martyrs.”
AS THE ailing ex-dictator lay in a track suit on his hospital gurney in a wire cage in the Cairo courtroom where once judges, prosecutors and lawyers unquestioningly did his bidding, he may have momentarily thought back to several visits by Condoleezza Rice, perhaps even wishing he’d taken her advice.
The American secretary of state came repeatedly to press upon him the need for democratic reform. It was part of the Bush 43’s crusade to spread democracy to the Arab world. That was one of the false excuses for the Iraq war.
Dictators like Mubarak didn’t like the American message. They promised reform but as soon as Rice left town it was out of sight, out of mind. Mubarak, like Syria’s Bashar Assad and others in their homicidal fraternity, feared giving too much freedom could only whet the masses’ appetite for more.
The Bush administration had a good idea but handled it badly. It pressed the Israeli government and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority to let Hamas participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections despite its refusal to meet the basic requirements of the US, EU and Israel – recognize Israel, abandon terror and accept prior Israel-PA agreements – and the result was disastrous.
Similarly Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanese elections gave that terror group virtual control of the Beirut government.
Iraq today has a quasi-democratic government but it is dominated by Shi’ites more closely aligned with Iran than with the United States, which put them in power.
When Rice brought her message of reform to pro-democracy activists Cairo in 2006, she was essentially told by the regime to shut up and mind her own business. After she left Mubarak told a government newspaper that she “didn’t bring up difficult issues or ask to change anything.”
Washington was unwilling to press Mubarak too hard to make reforms because it feared losing his cooperation on other fronts, particularly on keeping peace with Israel, however chilly it was, and his backing for Fatah over Hamas.
His message to the Americans, particularly after the Hamas victory, was “if I go the Islamists will take over and you don’t want that.” It was a persuasive argument since opposition forces were outlawed and unable to organize or build constituencies.
Despite being banned, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose theme was “Islam is the Solution,” with its base in the mosques and its underground network was able to emerge as a serious force following the revolution.
All others are struggling to catch up.
Some in Israel have accused the United States of not doing enough to prevent Mubarak’s downfall, but there was nothing Washington or Jerusalem could have done to save the Mubarak regime, and the fact that they were perceived as his backers and later as opponents of the revolution only hurt them both.
When I was in Egypt a couple of months before the revolution broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir square – peacefully until regime security forces and thugs weighed in – I conducted a very unscientific poll asking ordinary Egyptians I met whether Mubarak should run for another six-year term in 2011.
With rare exception the answer was no.
It’s not easy for folks on the street to speak against the dictator in a regime with a reputation for brutality and repression, which made their responses more interesting, albeit a bit guarded.
People told me he has served long enough and deserves rest and retirement; he’s OK but the people around him are bad and should go; his sons are too corrupt, new blood is needed. Translation: it’s time for a change.
Change is coming. The United States and Israel won’t be too happy with it, and with a choice between remnants of the old regime and the prospect of Islamic rule, Egyptians who had been yearning for greater freedom and democracy are also likely to be very disappointed.
©2012 DouglasMBloomfield. [email protected] gmail.com