Fall of the House of Mubarak

Today is a day for joy. Hosni Mubarak has stepped down immediately as President of Egypt. Following on the heels of the departure of Ben Ali in Tunisia, we are witnessing the hitherto unprecedented spectacle of the people of a Muslim Arab state rising up in protest, of their own initiative, and throwing off a remarkably well-entrenched dictator. We rejoice in the spectacle because we are Americans; it’s who we are. We know our system, even in the worst of hands, remains the best in the world, and we want to see others share in those same blessings.
But after the initial wave of joy subsides, the Egyptian crisis is far from over, and there are some important lessons to be learned.

1. The Price of Peace Processes: The United States has, for decades, been a major financial supporter and military supplier of the Mubarak regime. How’d that happen? The roots go back to the Camp David Accords that settled the conflict between Egypt and Israel that had been a major cause of the 1967 and especially 1973 wars. The Carter Administration, to facilitate peace, promised billions in aid to both parties, essentially in perpetuity. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat – no democrat himself – was assassinated in 1981 by Islamic extremists tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and his Vice President, Mubarak, seized power and instituted “emergency” powers, the Reagan Administration continued U.S. support, which has remained constant through the next four Administrations.
The Camp David Accords are justly regarded as the high point of the otherwise disastrous Carter presidency, and I don’t criticize President Carter for being willing to pay off the Egyptian regime to buy what has turned out to be the closest thing to durable peace between Israel and any of its hostile neighbors. Nor do I fault subsequent presidents for determining that other priorities – including peace with Israel, the Cold War, the first Gulf War coalition, and the hunt for Al Qaeda – were more important for U.S. interests than liberating Egypt from the yoke of Mubarak’s tyranny, even if that meant giving Mubarak a perverse incentive to use state-run media to stoke the radicalism of his own people and thus make the alternative to Mubarak even less palatable. But fans of diplomatic peace processes need to recall that honoring deals to prop up nasty dictatorships who play precisely that game is very often the price of negotiated peace. Every time we sit down to talk with Ahmadenijad or Kim Jong-Il or scores of other despots around the world, we enter into the very same compromise that Jimmy Carter made with Sadat and that has endured with his successor for three decades.
2. Obama Will Do Nothing For Democracy: As I said, I don’t fault any American president for siding with Mubarak while he was in firm control of Egypt. The long-term goal of American foreign policy is the worldwide spread of democracy, free markets, the rule of law and human rights – but it has never been practical to demand all those things everywhere at the same pace. If you are against all dictators equally at once, you are actually a threat to none of them; that’s why it’s so misguided when liberal Democrats are so often hot to put pressure on any dictator other than the one the U.S. is most interested in toppling at a given time, ensuring that our efforts will be diluted to nothing. That being said, it is useful for the dictators among our allies to be reminded that they are our allies only so long as they remain useful to us, and not a second longer; we are permanent friends to liberal democracies, but unfaithful to tyrants who deserve no better.
It would have been better for short and medium term U.S. interests if the Egyptian people had not risen up against Mubarak…but once the people began demonstrating in the streets, the dynamic changed. The Administration had an obligation, if it intended to demonstrate American seriousness about the sincerity of our belief in popular sovereignty, to take up the cause of the demonstrators and call for Mubarak’s ouster.
Obama couldn’t do it. Mubarak’s Cairo was, after all, the place where Obama had chosen as the site for his “address to the Muslim world” in 2009 (in which he grandly pronounced that “[n]o system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other”), ignoring objections at the time that he should not lend his imprimatur to Mubarak’s tyranny. As Josh Trevino details, Obama has declined at every turn – from Cairo to Teheran to Honduras – to support democracy when it was in crisis abroad, refusing to speak up even mildly against Mubarak in his hour of crisis and sending Joe Biden out to whitewash the nature of his regime. Obama’s fixation on negotiations with stable heads of state – like his recent arms deal with Putin’s Russia – overrides any commitment to standing with the people. To the extent that the situation in Egypt can be read as a triumph of democracy (still questionable, but to the average Muslim in the street today it looks like one), nobody will have any illusion that Obama was more than a passive observer.
3. Obama Will Do Nothing To Head Off A Worse Outcome: Where do we go from here? For today, Mubarak is gone, although it’s not entirely clear that we’ve avoided the Putin-esque result of a new government that is essentially still under his control. Reports at the moment also seem to suggest that his Vice President and previously presumptive successor, Omar Suleiman, is out too, taking with him his record of torturing prisoners. Assuming both are genuinely out, however, what we have in the short run is a military junta, and history doesn’t give us the greatest of confidence that those are really temporary.
But if Egypt moves beyond a junta, there is a very real possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood will form a menacing part of the new government. Longtime Democratic pollster Doug Schoen details the support the Brotherhood has in Egypt. It’s true, as was true in the pre-9/11 Taliban and of the original supporters of the Iranian Revolution against the Shah, that the Brotherhood’s broad support includes a lot of people who don’t mean to be backers of terrorism and sharia law, but if the Brotherhood gains power, the good intentions of the average Muslim in the street won’t count for much, anymore than they did in Iran or Afghanistan, or for that matter the fact that not every German who voted for the Nazis in 1933 meant to create what followed. Michael Weiss details many of the things the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has said even in recent years, and that’s before you get to the extent to which the organization was in many ways the grandfather of radical Sunni terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Yet the Administration, consistent with its soft line on Hamas and Hezbollah, has refused to take a hard line against the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in a new Egyptian government, and the Director of National Intelligence actually, laughably tried to pass the group off as “secular” (a description that doesn’t even survive contact with the first word of the organization’s name).
To be sure, there is a shortage of good options to go around in Egypt, and real limits to what the United States can do (it will be especially hard for Obama, having sat on his hands during the protests, to try to take any seat at the table in telling the Egyptians what kind of government we will accept, even with the huge leverage provided by U.S. aid). But combined with serious questions about the competence of the people who are supposed to be advising the President on this, it’s hard to have confidence that we’ll see anything but a continuation of the Administration’s policy of looking as weak and reluctant as possible.
4. Protest Is Contagious: It’s still unclear how and when the protests in Egypt were planned and organized – popular revolutions generally require somebody to set the spark, and what we see in public (such as the self-immolation that set off the immediate round of protest) is not always the whole story. But clearly, they were triggered at least in part by popular awareness of the revolt in Tunisia, and the similar unrest in Yemen and Jordan seems to be following in Egypt’s footsteps. Dangerous as the threat of takeover by Islamist movements may be, in the long run, this is a necessary step in the long-term reform of the Muslim and Arab worlds: the people of the region are sooner or later going to need to take responsibility for their own futures. That was, to many of us, the crucial element of the Bush Administration strategy that included the war in Iraq and showed its first (if mostly abortive) flowering in the spring of 2005: the idea that Iraq would provide an alternative model of self-governance to the continued toleration of failed states under brutal tyrants. That model still has a long way to go – as Christopher Hitchens argued for years, Iraq was in danger of a violent unraveling at the end of Saddam’s reign whether we invaded or not, and as Meghan McArdle explains, much as in the former Soviet bloc, the elimination of centralized tyranny has made it harder to stamp out local corruption. But it remains nonetheless the case that as the Egyptian people agitate for the downfall of a tyrant, they have an example to look to of how a Muslim Arab country could move forward after being rid of one. (And Egypt is not Iraq; who controls Cairo, controls Egypt).
As Rany Jazayerli argues, another aspect of that contagion is Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera’s biases are well-documented, but it is no friend of secularized tyrants, and it has been the most effective channel for informing the peoples of the Arab world of events in their region and the nature of their regimes. Combined with the internet, that creates a new dynamic – not one that can guarantee free government, but at least one that should frighten dictators.
5. A Deal To Go Is A Deal To Go: One wonders how much faster Mubarak – as the head of a famously corrupt regime – could have been removed if he’d been genuinely assured of a quick escape. But when a dictator is wobbling and is approached about leaving, he must always bear in mind the example of Augusto Pinochet, who cut a deal to voluntarily step down from a brutal dictatorship in Chile in 1990, only to be indicted and arrested by Spanish authorities eight years later. I shed no tears for Pinochet, but his escape deal, like a plea agreement, should have been honored for the precedent it set. Mubarak was undoubtedly reluctant to believe any promises that he could leave safely.

So, rejoice today in Egypt’s moment of hope. But moments of hope have come and gone around the world before – the revolutionary moments of 1789, 1848, 1919, 1968, 1989 and 2005 all had more casualties than successes. The way forward will present Egypt with the twin threats of military dictatorship and extremist Islamist rule, and the Obama Administration can be trusted to provide neither competence, consistency, decisiveness, idealism nor realpolitik. Hope doesn’t always end with change anyone can believe in.

17 thoughts on “Fall of the House of Mubarak”

  1. I have not followed closely what Obama has said or not said about Egypt since this crisis began, so I can’t comment, at the moment, about whether it was good or bad.
    My personal, initial reaction, after hearing about the protests, was that the US should be very careful about what it says or does here. There were a number of reasons for this, many of which you mentioned:
    (1) It’s against US interests to have an Islamic theocratic government in Egypt – obviously. The status quo with Mubarak is a better alternative, however distasteful.
    (2) The shapelessness of the protest, which in many ways was a good thing, made it corruptible by almost anyone organized enough to take power in the name of “democracy.” I did not want to see the US back the wrong horse here.
    (3) We weren’t really in the position to tangibly help any of the protesters anyway, so actively encouraging them only to see them crushed would have left us in the worst possible position – no democracy in Egypt and losing whatever benefit Mubarak provided. Also, those in favor of democracy in Egypt may have felt that the US left them in the cold, making us no friends even with the people we would be inclined to help.

  2. I forgot to add a point about the Muslim Brotherhood. I share your skepticism about the Brotherhood’s promise to represent “secularism.” Apart from any shady elements, it is not in the nature of -any- religious group to represent secularism. It’s just not in their DNA. They will want whatever new government to represent Muslim ideals in one form or another.
    An interesting parallel is the Catholic Church’s role in Poland during and after the Cold War. There is no question that the Church in Poland was a force for freedom and against oppression in Poland during the Cold War. But it was also quite clear that the Church wanted the new Polish government to be as Catholic as possible. It’s a little naive to expect the Muslim Brotherhood to behave any differently, and we don’t really know what they have in mind.

  3. One thing you forgot or left out. The Army is highly respected in Egypt with the Army being in charge not much will change with the most stable and powerful institution now controlling the country. Also, when the protest started in Egypt a large cadre of senior Egyptian Military officials was in Washington and stayed several day as the turmoil grew. I wonder if we used that time to build a greater bond with them knowing they are the only option we have to keep that country stable.

  4. Crank, I only disagree with one thing you wrote, “of their own inititive”. There have been other players at work in Tunisia and Egypt. I do not see democracy winning out in Egypt and hold out very little hope of the Egyptian people being better off in five years.

  5. “Obama has declined at every turn – from Cairo to Teheran to Honduras – to support democracy when it was in crisis abroad, refusing to speak up even mildly against Mubarak in his hour of crisis”
    Whoa- Refusing to speak up even mildly against Mubarak? Crank, from Day 1 it was ‘Mubarak must go!’ from the White House. Don’t you recall on Day 2 or 3, Gibbs telling WHPC “Now means Yesterday”…? Course, then when it looked like Mubarak would weather the storm, suddenly lots of different voices started chiming in, Hillary saying he must stay, then go…eventually, The White House special envoy saying ‘He must stay’, Panetta saying ‘He’s gone’. The Saudis calling Dumbo to tell him to cool the rhetoric… If there is anything revealed in this crisis, it’s the certain ineptitude of the Obama administration, and the knee-jerk anti-American stance it will take. An uprising in Egypt against an American ally: The people have spoken! An uprising in Iran against America’s enemies: Let’s not meddle in another nation’s internal strife. Hezbollah takes over Lebanon and deposes the democratically elected government, nullifying the Green Revolution: crickets. An aborted coup against a democratic ally in Honduras: Hey, you can’t depose a president just because he wants to take over your country… The only point of reference for these Democrat/Obamabags is: Is it gonna hurt America? If so, good! Bring on the peaceful, secular rule of the Muslim Brotherhood!

  6. I apologize to everyone for the insulting slur on Democrats I used in the above comment. It was dumb and unfair. I had amended it and a few other words and phrases after Previewing it, but what posted was the first draft.

  7. I sure can’t see where you have anything to apologize for!
    You’ve made a terrible–and from all evidence, a likely–accusation against the Administration, but apologize for using the O-bag label. That’s like a page right out of my book!
    Well played, sir!

  8. MVH, my sister-in-law was born in Poland and emigrated to Canada about 1981. She and my brother spent a lot of time in Poland in late 80s and early 90s and lived there as protestant missionaries from 2003 to 2010. They disagree with your assessment of religioius liberty in Poland. Yes, the church opposed former communists in the government, but reason was freedom and not religion.

  9. Paul,
    I completely agree that the Church opposed the communists because of freedom, and I’m not suggesting the Church in Poland was against liberty for other religions. While I’m at it, I’ll add that I’m certainly not equating the Catholic Church in Poland with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
    I’m simply making the point that you can’t expect religious organizations to represent “secularism” when they want a say in the government

  10. The secularists in Poland were the communists. The church support Soliditary, not the other way around. The first Amendment was pushed by the Baptists & Methodists

  11. PaulV,
    Are you just adding information or disagreeing me in some way? If you are disagreeing with me, then what you are saying has nothing to do with my basic point. Unless you claim that the Church’s post-liberation wishes for the government was not religious in nature, then we do not disagree.

  12. The church was mainly interested in supporting Poland by eliminating communists from government. Protestants and Jews had little political power. Rallying catholic support for reformers made sense. I notice that you are unable to name any examples of Catholic Church suppressing any other religions. My brother and sister-in-law refudiate your views.

  13. PaulV,
    What in the world are you talking about?? Since when have I stated that the Catholic church was “suppressing” other religions?? I’m not even implying that. You are reading way, way too much into my posts on this subject. Wanting the Polish government to be Catholic in character is hardly the same thing as wanting the new government to suppress other religions.
    I don’t know whose views you are refudiating, but they aren’t mine. And by the way, I am Catholic, so I’m certainly not taking a cheap shot at the Church.

  14. This is the point you keep missing – I’m not comparing the Catholic church directly with the Muslim Brotherhood. My point is that you can’t expect religious groups to represent secularism, and whatever role they play before a revolution, they tend to want to shape the new government in their religious interests. I cite the Catholic church in Poland merely as an example of that phenomenon.
    There is nothing nefarious about this phenomenon, unless of course, you don’t know exactly what the religious group intends. This is the difference, at the moment, between the Catholic Church and the Muslim Brotherhood. We don’t know if the Muslim Brotherhood is or will be co-opted by any of the radical, militant strains of Islam. There was never any fear of that from the Catholics in Poland.

  15. I was agreeing with Crank on his point about secularism, and it reminded me of that parallel. Pointless to you, perhaps, but you were so busy jumping to conclusions about what I wrote, I can understand why you would be disappointed that it really wasn’t that complicated.

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