Obama panicked. The Regime stayed cool.

At the Herzlia Conference today there were two panels on Egypt. First one with Robert Wexler and David Gordon from US think Tanks a Danny Rothschild and Yaakov Amidror from Israel. Generally they all agreed that Obama screwed up and should have stuck to quiet diplomacy. They all agreed that the US should stay involved and try to channel a good result. They had varying degrees of optimism or pessimism with regard to probabilities. They also discussed the struggel between the realists who align with dictators and idealists who align with the street. The latter believe that real stability only comes from democracy. The Americans thought that they could live with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The second panel consisted of ex-pat Egyptians who live in Europe and Judith Miller. They didn’t know what they were talking about. They all thought that Mubarak should go before things fall further apart and not one mentioned the role of the US. Ted Belman

What If They Gave a Revolution and No Regime Fell?

By Barry Rubin
The time has come to advance a new thesis. Since I was just about the first person anywhere to warn publicly that the Egyptian revolution wasn’t necessarily going to be a bed of roses, let me now suggest a daring idea that seems increasingly possible. I speak here as a political analyst and not as an advocate of any policy or outcome, neither cheering nor booing but merely observing.

What if the regime in Egypt doesn’t fall? What if it survives this crisis, with a change of leader (inevitable given Husni Mubarak’s advanced age), some reforms, and some concessions? What if the revolution fizzles?

After all, by standing firm, the regime has kept the upheaval from growing bigger and spreading farther. With the army at its side, the regime does not have to surrender at all.

In addition, this is not some one-man reign in a tiny Third World country. The government is not the Mubarak regime but the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak regime, now approaching its sixtieth anniversary. In addition, there is a huge bureaucracy, powerful economic interests, and the entire military hierarchy tied to the regime. They are willing to let Mubarak go but why should this huge sector give up its wealth, power, and privileges when it doesn’t have to do so?

Moreover, let’s remember something rather important. Aside from (well-deserved) fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is the broader concern over anarchy and violence. If you are a member of this political-economic-military elite, you could not only lose your job but all your wealth and even your life. Who knows if the new rulers at some point would start executing people?

I am certainly not saying that it’s all over nor am I suggesting anyone should rejoice. A tragedy is a situation in which there is no easy way out and perhaps no good way out at all. At any rate, the only thing that really matters is what happens in Egypt itself. And that we will have to watch to see. Nevertheless, a new variable must be considered: non-revolution.

Of course, the Obama administration never should have thought the regime would crumble like a house of cards. Threatened with the downfall of them all (and not just Mubarak) they seem to have decided: let’s stick together and outlast the demonstrators. Let people get tired of chaos, ready to return to work, eager to have the army (which the opposition keeps reminding people is beloved by the Egyptian people) restore order.

After all, the elite was never in love with the idea of having Husni’s son, Gamal, take over. Many will say that this is the silver lining of the revolutionary disorder. Indeed, it proves why he was incapable of doing the job–running off, in contrast to his father–the moment things got scary. Now, they figure, they can put someone relatively competent into power.

Speaking of having someone competent in power, this brings us to the question of U.S. policy. I can’t get the story of “Lord Jim,” the great Joseph Conrad novel, out of my mind. The main character is a professional sailor who is one of the officers aboard a broken-down freighter carrying hundreds of poor Muslim pilgrims from the East Indies to Mecca. The ship hits something and a storm is approaching. The crew decide, without checking properly, that the ship is going to sink. They panic and take to the lifeboats, betraying their duty and leaving the Muslims on board to die.

But the ship doesn’t sink at all and the passengers are rescued by a passing naval vessel. The crew is put on trial and disgraced, losing their licenses. The humiliated young man can only restore his honor by acts of great bravery, which is the rest of the novel.

Within hours of the start of Egypt’s crisis, Barack Obama panicked and took to the lifeboats or, to use the contemporary phrase, was ready to throw the regime under the bus. Here, I’m not judging on a basis of human rights, national interests, morality, or anything else: I’m just stating a fact. In a world that, at least outside of Western Europe, favors strong leaders, Obama came off as more Wayne Newton than John Wayne. (continues after cartoon)

By Martin Berman-Gorvine special for Rubin Reports

For comparison’s sake, here are some appropriate John Wayne quotes:

“A lot of guys make mistakes, I guess, but every one we make…and some guy don’t walk away – forevermore, he don’t walk away.” –“Sands of Iwo Jima.”

“Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.” –“Stagecoach”

“This kind of war, you’ve gotta believe in what you’re fighting for.” –“Back to Bataan”

Now here’s Obama, at the height of the Iranian democratic demonstrations against a regime far more brutal than Mubarak’s: “We are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”

Well, you get the picture. Who do you want in your foxhole?

So how is Obama going to look if the ship stays afloat?

After all, this is an American government that a few days ago “ordered” Egypt’s government to go, starting “now,” even starting “yesterday.” One of several bad decisions was a failure to distinguish between Mubarak and the regime. These people still don’t realize what they did wrong:

Privately counseling the Egyptian elite to get rid of Mubarak might well have worked; publicly yelling at them to disband themselves was asking them to commit suicide. Obviously, they were not likely to do so.

Perhaps the most interesting single sentence spoken by anyone during this crisis was when Mubarak said that Obama doesn’t understand Arab culture. What did he mean? Here’s my interpretation:

In Western society, you can compromise and make concessions so that your opponent or potential partner says: What a great person! He’s so reasonable. I, too, will make concessions and we will have a win-win solution!

For decades naïve Westerners have been trying to apply this to the Middle East. It doesn’t work. The more you concede the more the other side concludes you are weak. The more you give, the more they take. Appetite grows with the feeding.

And there’s more. If people think that the other side is stronger, is winning, and you are losing credibility, more and more of them will join that other side out of opportunism or survival.

This is precisely what’s happening in the Middle East. As the United States apologizes and makes unilateral concessions, people are attracted by Iran’s posing as the “strong horse,” ranting, roaring, threatening, and killing. If you throw some of your friends under the bus (Lebanese moderates, Iranian and Turkish oppositionists, Israel, southern Sudan?, etc.), many others will get on the bus.

And the sign on the bus says: The Islamist express. On the back is a bumper sticker that says: We brake for terrorists.

So Mubarak was saying don’t let them see you be afraid or, as the motto of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy puts it, “Don’t panic.”

Yes, Mubarak has been a nasty dictator though less nasty than Iran’s rulers, Syria’s rulers, Hamas in Gaza, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, and the regime in the Sudan. He’s even less brutal than his regime’s founder, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tortured and killed while being wildly popular.

The West, then, interpreted events in Egypt in its own image: Mubarak as Darth Vader (or Dick Cheney, whichever you think is worse), the revolutionaries as heroic strugglers (which is why we weren’t permitted to point out that many of them were Islamists who wanted to set up a worse dictatorship), and Obama as the moral, all-seeing president who knows America’s interests are best served by taking a leap in the dark with no strategy, no serious evaluation, and no clearly defined goal.

Is this a tragedy for all those Egyptians who really do want a moderate, secular democracy? You bet it is. But one day, when there are enough people like that, they will succeed.

As I pointed out earlier, the crew of Lord Jim’s broken-down freighter was disgraced by panicking. But there’s at least one important difference between them and the U.S.-Egypt events: Those men weren’t responsible for their ship being broken down. In terms of U.S. Middle East policy, a lot of leaks in the ship of state can be attributed to its current captain.

Notes: the title of this article is a play on the 1960s’ saying, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Wayne Newton is an American singer; John Wayne is a macho American actor known especially for his roles portraying cowboys and soldiers.

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.

February 9, 2011 | 4 Comments »

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  1. The single institution that has ruled Egypt since the ouster of King Farouk in the early 1950s has been the Egyptian armed forces. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all have been officers who were in key positions of with their service branch, and used their positions to lever themselves into political power. That situation today is still constant. The presidency is in fact the armed forces backing one of their own. Military power holders have a monopoly on armed force within any society, and most such people will suffer only lightly competition from other elites, including religious entitities, economic leaderships, unions, journalists, etc. And they will not long listen to any advice from the so-called international community that threatens their control.

    The factor I have cited above gives Israel reason to hope that the Egyptian armed forces will continue to suppress the Ilkwan (Moslem Brotherhood), paying the usual lip service to Islam but mainly getting on with the job of ruling their country and possibly improving it. That also would imply they must maintain the peace treaty with Israel. They surely know that if ever the Ilkwan induces the armed forces to denounce the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and remilitarize the Sinai, any Israeli government of any political complexion will see this as an existential threat calling for pre-emptive war to retake the Sinai, as in all previous conflicts between the two countries.

    As for so-called benefits of “democracy”, how exactly will that put food on the table of unemployed Egyptian families or provide meaningful lives for scores of millions of people for whom society has no social role and never will have, under conditions defined by the basic economics of such a country? Make no mistake. This is not an international event that will be decided by CNN, FoxNews, or the US presidency and its officials and agents.

    So my bets are placed on the side of the Egyptian armed forces. They are the ones with the guns, unity of command, sense of national purpose, and support of the neighboring states that count, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and even Israel.

    In any case, that is my analysis based on the facts presently available and trends that can be derived from those facts.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  2. I asked the question because I wanted their assessment of the role if any of the US. I also wanted to point out that many outside forces made trouble with democratization in Iraq and whether they thought their would be any danger in that happening in Egypt. They answered neither question.

  3. Much truth in Rubin’s analysis. The regime can just outlast the demonstrators by doing nothing and by instituting divide and conquer tactics. Only massive violence can move such a regime. Mubarak will still go but on his terms, so the problems will still be out there. It was always the regime and not Mubarak. 5-10 extended families control everything in Egypt. They aim to stay on.

  4. The second panel consisted of ex-pat Egyptians who live in Europe and Judith Miller. They didn’t know what they were talking about. They all thought that Mubarak should go before things fall further apart and not one mentioned the role of the US. Ted Belman

    Saw the panel discussion, heard your two questions that none answered. Frankly I didn’t understand what you were trying to say, or maybe I did but they didn’t. The Jordanian answered not directly to your question.

    This whole conference from what I could see was an exercise in leftist pseudo intellectual BS. A real leftist love in! The only speaker I caught that had anything real and serious to say was Yadlin our recent head of Mil intelligence. Said we have a max of two years to bring the IDF up to level it should be with a view to a belligerent Egypt. The IDF will have to revamp our whole military doctrine

    Two moves made public in view of Changing situation with Egypt. A-Junes draft moved up to March and B- The government approved today an additional 700 mil shekels to the defense budget.

    I wonder what the odds are of Israel retaking Yamit and rebuilding the town in the near future?