Egypt: The Turning Point, The Regime’s Plan on What to Do Next

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 and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

February 1, 2011 | 7 Comments »

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  1. Get off imported oil (or at least non-Nafta imported oil). Oil provides the money to finance the Islamic threat to the US, Israel, and though they refuse to admit it, Europe as well.

    It seems likely that whatever government emerges in Egypt will be less friendly if not hostile to the US, and more so Israel. This threatens the overall reliability of the middle east as a major oil supplier.

    Americans should be writing their congressional representatives about the importance of getting off foreign oil. There are two way to do this and rather than have the Democrats reject the Republican approach of “drill, baby drill,” and the Republicans reject the Democrat approach of efficiency standards and subsidies, we should be advocating both.

    The situation in Egypt is quite serious and that means the industrialized world, and particularly the US, has to take the threat to oil stability equally seriously.

  2. Yamit,

    You missed Mr. Rapaport’s point entirely.

    In the first case, you had a genuinely popular revolt that held out the prospect of a secular Western-friendly regime, if they were successful, with no indication of Muslim Brotherhood influence, pitted against a sworn enemy of the U.S. and Israel. Obama does nothing.

    I assess American administrations mostly based on their foreign policy. Domestic policies and behavior is no concern of mine I don’t live there anymore. There is no appreciable difference between the foreign policies of Bush and Obama or even Clinton. The same backers and power brokers domestic and foreign control both sides of American politics and politicians. Therefore whether Obama is president or anyone else they will perform according to those who really are in control.

    But what if there are no more “moderates” left to appease? Then, there is no choice but to stand by Israel.

    I said this on another thread: Israel would benefit from the failure of Mubarak’s regime. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt, Israel will return to her role as America’s only viable ally in the Middle East. The political change would allow Israel to destroy the Egyptian nuclear program, which is well advanced.

    The Muslim Brotherhood called on its supporters to pour into the streets Friday night. This makes sense of the Brotherhood’s earlier restraint: apparently, they were waiting for secular parties to weaken the security forces. Now the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to deal Mubarak’s regime the last, mortal blow.

    Mubarak may not risk setting his army against the Brotherhood, which has thoroughly infiltrated the military. He thought a better choice was to buy time by calling new elections. The problem is that the United States will push him to make those elections transparent, and the Muslim Brotherhood will win transparent elections hands down.

    Not that I expect such logic to click in the head of the likes of Obama. I wouldn’t count on him to back Israel in any circumstance. The next two years are going to be very dangerous for this reason. I would say Mr. Rapaport’s assessment is right on target.

    I made no comment re: Rapports comment only yours and blands. The Iranian demonstrations were backed and led by other factions of Iranian opposition little different from the current regime. It was an internal power play using useful idiots to to attain their political aims and agenda.

    America has a history of interference in other nations internal affairs when there is an economic benefit to someone in the American power elites vested interest. no economic interest no interference by America. There are no higher principles involved in American foreign policy. So everyone is potentially expendable to the American Moloch of Financial interests.

    Israels leaders know this, they just lie, even to themselves because they would be hard pressed to have to face the alternatives. They will have to sooner or later.

  3. Yamit,

    You missed Mr. Rapaport’s point entirely.

    In the first case, you had a genuinely popular revolt that held out the prospect of a secular Western-friendly regime, if they were successful, with no indication of Muslim Brotherhood influence, pitted against a sworn enemy of the U.S. and Israel. Obama does nothing.

    In the second case, you have a revolt laced with Muslim Brotherhood influence in which they are sure to be a major player in the next regime, about to topple a tainted but at least semi-reliable ally, a situation that is looking like it is going from bad to really bad from the point of view of immediate U.S. and Israeli interests…and Obama cheers on the demonstrators.

    Obama’s behavior reminds me of an old saying: “He who bites the hand that feeds him, licks the boot that kicks him.”

    As to “holier than thou” hubris, did you actually read what I wrote? I do believe I came down squarely on the side of Israel in the “lesser of the two stupids” sweepstakes, as did BlandOatmeal. Like I said, Israel at least has the excuse of extreme external pressure to do stupid things (like providing electricity for free to Gaza), whereas no such excuse is operative here in the U.S.

    Mr. Rapaport is right on target. Snide remarks directed at your friends, Yamit, are pointless. I think your personal need to message your own ego by such means knows no bounds.

    But ultimately, I’m not as worried about Egypt or anyone else going “radical Muslim”.

    For decades, U.S. administrations, to say nothing of Europe, have equivocated on support of Israel on the basis of not wanting to “alienate” so-called “moderate” Arab/Muslim regimes. Obama, as bad as he is, has only taken this philosophy to its ultimate conclusion thus far. It is a matter of degree in his case, not kind. Bush wasn’t really that much better.

    But what if there are no more “moderates” left to appease? Then, there is no choice but to stand by Israel.

    Not that I expect such logic to click in the head of the likes of Obama. I wouldn’t count on him to back Israel in any circumstance. The next two years are going to be very dangerous for this reason. I would say Mr. Rapaport’s assessment is right on target.

    But the man is a one-termer for sure. The latest Rasmussen polls (one of the only major polls I trust) have only 29% of Americans “strongly” approving of Obama’s performance, while 41% “strongly” disapprove. Overall, his approval is at 49% and disapproval is at 50%.

    It is all downhill from here. Inflation, a persistently weak job market and stagnant wages, combined with outrageously weak foreign policy, spell bad news on every front for all of us, but certainly for Obama’s re-election prospects. Even his one “accomplishment”, health care, is under mortal threat.

    He’ll go down as among the worst – if not THE worst – president in U.S. history. I just wonder how much more damage he’ll do before he’s done.

  4. Oat and Vinnie:

    I really must laugh at your inconsistency and political partisanship. You all criticized Obama for not supporting the demonstrators in Iran last year and now when he sides with demonstrators in Egypt he comes under similar criticisms. Something tells me your hate for Obama blinds all of you from any objectivity.

    As for Jews being stupid we don’t hold a candle to America and Americans.

    Recent history only:

    2 stupid wars bankrupting America for no good reason other than enrichment of certain American and foreign interests.

    Thousands dead and wounded for nothing.

    Americas Debt Is More Than All the Money in the World

    30 plus million illegal aliens and nobody knows how many terrorists came along with them.

    Funding and Arming Most of the worlds terrorists from Osama to Neuraga. All of Israel’s enemies except Syria, and they would like to do that too.

    Technology transfers to China.

    shipping Industrial base to China and before that to Japan.

    Purchasing foreign oil instead of domestic drilling.

    Going off the gold standard for fiat paper.



    I could continue with many pages listing all the stupid things America has done in the past to the present. Israel has as well but coming from holier than thou partisan fools, somehow even justified criticism rings hollow.

  5. The position of the US president and our government in general is inexplicable. When there was a true “peoples” revolt in Iran against totalitarian authority, Obama came out on the wrong side. Now when the revolt is against a staunch ally of the US and Israel, is in trouble,
    Obama immediately jumps to the sidemost likely to lead to installation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Given all the actions our president has
    done since his election, this latest one confirms my worst fears, i.e. his agenda is not what is good for the US but what is good for radical

    He is not one of us. Read Aaron Klein’s “The Manchurian President”.

  6. Well put, BlandOatmeal (how the heck did you ever come up with that name?).

    Just one caveat:

    Israel did all of those stupid things “under duress”. This doesn’t let Israeli leaders off the hook; they might have tried a bit harder to make the case for Israel’s genuine interests. But it is a mitigating factor.

    Israel is under enormous pressure from two directions to do such stupid things;

    1. A sad fact of political/economic geography: The EU is Israel’s largest export market. She needs access to this for her economy in the worst way. I believe Israeli leaders lay awake nights in fear of an EU embargo. Without firing a shot, the EU could deal body blows to the Isreali economy in this fashion.

    2. The obvious importance of the alliance with the U.S. in terms of both access to big-ticket weapons platforms, and support in the UN.

    I have sensed over the years that Israeli leaders were perfectly prepared to tell the rest of the world to go to hell, but these two actors – the U.S. and the EU – she is reluctant to piss off. Pressure from the same has a lot to do with Israel’s “stupid” behavior.

    There is no such excuse for the U.S. American voters were scared into voting for Obama because of the crash of ’08; prior to the crash, McCain was on track to win. McCain, for his part, made a fatal tactical error in not coming up with a coherent response to the crash that could compete with Obama’s bogus message, so Obama won that debate by default. It also didn’t help matters that the whole of the media – with the exception of FOX and the WSJ (Newscorp) – were openly backing Obama.

    But voting for president is not exactly the same thing as choosing a contestent on “American Idol”, though in the election of ’08, that is precisely how American voters behaved. I am furious with Obama, but I am even more furious with the American voting public – especially the 78% of my fellow Jewish Americans who did so – for allowing themselves to be taken in by that con artist and Saudi stooge, Obama.

    …Or is he a “Saudi stooge”? That is what I’ve thought all along, but an Israeli expat friend of mine who lives in New York state has argued all along to me that Obama is in fact an Iranian stooge. Maybe my friend is right….

  7. It’s been noted, repeatedly, how stupid the Jewish people have been, what with inviting terrorists to rule parts of their country, releasing hundreds of Jew-killing terrorists from prison in exchange for the dead bodies of their victims, giving away their best land in exchange for nothing, and making landless, homeless, jobless refugees of their own people in exchange for having their children targeted by rockets in school playgrounds.

    Those are all really, really stupid things for a people to do; but MOVE OVER, JEWS! THERE IS SOMEONE MORE STUPID THAN YOU! Thanks to our simpleton coach Barack Obama, America will soon be the undisputed winner of the Dunce Award!

    Barry Rubin impresses me as no friend of America; but we have such a cancer in the White House, any cuts Rubin makes are more likely to help us than hurt us. I never thought I would see the day, when the most accurate assessment of America would come from the likes of Hafez Assad and the Islamic Brotherhood.