By Barry Rubin
In 1978 and 1979 I followed the Iranian revolution on a daily and hourly basis. Even before the hostage crisis, recognizing the importance of this event, I began work on a book. The title? Paved with Good Intentions. This came from the expression, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
This is precisely might be what is happening now. Out of “good intentions,” the United States is headed–though I hopes it can still be averted–the biggest catastrophe in the history of its relations with the Middle East. Thirty years after Iran’s revolution produced a similar situation, nothing has been learned by U.S. policymakers. Nothing.
Let me be clear: Removing Mubarak is NOT the problem. There is little doubt that he will lose power personally, something that would have happened within months any way given his age. The most hated and corrupt figures will flee the country.
The question is whether the regime–the current system–will survive. As of this moment (for reasons you can read four paragraphs down) I believe that the regime that has ruled Egypt for 59 years is finished. Is that a good thing? Well, it depends on what happens.
It is not inevitable that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over. Even the Brotherhood doesn’t want that in the near future. It is far more likely, though, that Egypt would become a radical, anti-American state perhaps with some restraint (see point 1, below). The army will play a critical role one way or the other.
But nobody should neglect the reality of public opinion. Here’s a report direct from the massive demonstration in Cairo today by a friend interviewing people there:
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square are increasingly saying this is not a fight against Mubarak. This is a fight against Israel and the United States whose interests he’s implementing.
But, many will say, isn’t it the fault of these countries for supporting Mubarak? The answer is: And would the situation be better if they had never done so? At any rate, it is January 2011 and, like it or not, one has to deal with the existing reality.
We now have for the first time a glimpse of what the Egyptian establishment is planning, from a source very close to the vice-president Omar Suleiman, who is the closest thing to someone running the country. His plan is to dissolve parliament; write a new constitution; call new parliamentary elections; and later hold presidential elections.
Suleiman is a very positive force. He has wanted to be president for a long time, hated the idea that Gamal Mubarak, the son, would succeed Husni. If anyone in Egypt can save the situation, he’s the man. For his candid views, read this Wikileaks document. Of course, precisely because he understands the Iranian and revolutionary Islamist threat, the opposition will want to get rid of him as fast as possible.
This is probably the best that can be expected. Notice that this would all be organized by Suleiman and the regime-appointed officials. If this could be implemented there would be some hope. If the incumbent ruling party and army can hold together, perhaps some continuity could be possible. Of course, a critical question is how many votes the current ruling party might muster. Would Egyptians fearful of extremism vote for those associated with Mubarak? Or would extremist Egyptians put an extremist government into office?
But note also that this plan is carefully formulated. Mubarak doesn’t want to go and the establishment either doesn’t want or fears confronting him. This plan, then, goes around the problem. Mubarak stays and after a year or so there would be a new election, by which time he might have died, been disabled, step down, or choose not to run. One can see the army liking this plan.
Yet for this very reason–Mubarak stays on for a while–the opposition, smelling blood, might reject it.
1. The Turkish newspaper Radikal has a very interesting item about Professor Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor at Columbia University, who it describes as “a close friend of U.S. President Barack Obama.” Khalidi, it says, remarks:
“A democratic Arabic world will resemble the democracy of Turkey. The new Arabic world would be more assertive and be less willing to accept Israel’s demands. The new Arabic world would also be more independent.”
This is worth considering. In other words, if the worst-case scenario is a radical Islamist Egypt, the “best case” may be merely a Turkish Islamist style regime. That means: increasing Islamization in Turkey, an alignment with Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizballah, and an indifference to U.S. interests.
I’m not being sarcastic here. The first is incredibly terribly horrendous, while the second is just incredibly terrible. Still, for those who think the first case is too exaggerated perhaps they will understand that the “best case” isn’t so great either.
Presumably “willing to accept Israel’s demands” means its demand for survival. And being “independent” means ignoring what the United States wants.
2. But in fact that isn’t happening. I would estimate that for everyone on the mass media (experts or journalists) who are saying the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical, pro-terrorist, anti-American group, there are 10? saying the opposite.
It is rather frustrating to know the Brotherhood’s history, see how extremist are its statements (including calls for Jihad against America by its leader), and then be portrayed as some marginal loony for holding that view. One major television network called the Brotherhood an admirable courageous organization fighting for the poor.
The “good news,” though is that Israel and the relatively moderate Arabs are being treated on the same level. We have gone from confronting a merely anti-Israel to a pro-Islamist, anti-American interests line. And that’s in America itself!
3. It is one thing for Egypt to have a revolution that might well lead into chaos and a regional disaster; it is quite another to see the U.S. government supporting this event.
One of the many amazing things left out of the current discussion is the irony of a U.S. government that came to office apologizing for past exercises in American power has now engaged in the greatest single bullying action in history. He has dismissed a 60-year-old Egyptian ally after a few days of demonstrations, reportedly telling that government it could not use American weapons to defend itself.
In other words, he treated the sovereign government of Egypt the way the United States used to treat South American “banana republics.”
I realize that the previous two paragraphs might sound callous toward the fact that this regime was a repressive dictatorship. It is understandable that Egyptians want more freedom (though it might be defined differently than Americans think). If they were to attain a stable, democratic regime then that would be wonderful. I don’t think that will happen; no one will be happier than me if it does happen.
4. But this raises an interesting question: Will a future American president one day apologize to Egyptians for what Obama is doing this week? Will Egyptians ten years from now hate America even more for helping saddle them with a new, even worse government?
5. There was a simple alternative: to support the regime while urging it to make some concessions and changes. A variation of this is the Tunisian model: remove the dictator, maintain the regime, but bring in some reformers and moderates. Why demand regime change?
Here is how Martin Kramer put it brilliantly in 2002:
“[When] mention [is] made of double standards in U.S. policy. I always find it striking when the Arab and Muslim worlds grow indignant about this, since in their own polities, the gap between rhetoric and reality, between principle and practice, can be positively breathtaking. But there is one gold standard that everyone in the Middle East understands: you reward your friends, and punish your enemies. They all do it. Now it is proposed that the United States reward its enemies and punish its friends…to win the good will of Middle Easterners.
“If the United States were to do this, no one would ever again risk aligning himself with this country….People may not always like U.S. policy, but they have to admit that the United States has stood by its allies, friends, and proxies. You tamper with that credibility at your very great peril.”
6. Americans tend to think people in the Middle East will be grateful when they do “good” things like toppling dictatorships, be they friendly (Egypt) or unfriendly (Iraq). But an editorial in the Syrian-controlled newspaper, al-Watan, reminds us of how things really work:
“The United States dropped Mubarak not because he carried out their agenda of repressing, starving and impoverishing his people, but because he failed to control and subject them.”
In other words, the United States will reap no gratitude for what it’s doing now. The line will be: the revolutionary forces of the people overcame the United States once again! Just as it happened in… (following a list of real or alleged victories.) The fantasies that the United States can somehow maintain good relations with Egypt under a completely new regime are word for word the same things being said about Iran in 1978 and 1979.
7. But why take my word for it? Here’s the head of the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood explaining how people think:
The United States is at “the beginning of its end and is heading towards its demise….Resistance is the only solution….It is withdrawing from Iraq, defeated and wounded, and it is also on the verge of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Its warplanes, missiles and modern military technology were defeated by the will of the peoples, as long as [these peoples] insisted on resistance – and the wars of Lebanon and Gaza,” are proof of this.
It won’t be long before revolutionary Islamists in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere add to this: “and the wars of Lebanon and Gaza, as well as the people’s revolution against America and its flunkies in Egypt!”
8. The White House spokesman on January 31 said the United States would accept the Muslim Brotherhood in government if it rejected violence and recognizes “democratic goals.” Funny, that was the U.S. government position on Hizballah (which now rules Lebanon) and Hamas (which now rules the Gaza Strip). How did that work out?
What does “violence” mean? They won’t need to use violence against the government if they control the government! They will advocate violence against U.S. forces in Iraq, against Israel, and to overthrow the remaining (they seem to be shrinking in number) relatively moderate regimes. Hamas–but not Hizballah–terrorists will be trained at camps in Egypt. The Egypt-Gaza border will be open and weapons will flow steadily every day.
Then, of course, it will be too late. The same people who set or backed this U.S. policy will say that the United States must now recognize reality and accept the regime unconditionally.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center’s site is http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.