Sobering thoughts on Egypt’s future.

By Barry Rubin

I hate to say this but please allow me to do my job and try to be a useful observer of these historic events. My position from the beginning has been to make a distinction between Mubarak’s fall–which doesn’t matter–and the total fall of the regime with its being replaced by something totally different and unknown.

Now think about this: Millions of Egyptians hated the regime. So the regime blamed everything on Mubarak. Mubarak resigns. Now everyone loves the regime. For sixty years, Egypt has gone through variations but nothing essential has changed.

Will there be free elections and the choice of a government that will change everything? We will see but it hasn’t happened yet.

But why not have a more open system? What’s critical is that no one touches the army’s privileges, money, and business enterprises plus doesn’t go after the rich establishment. Who needs to repress people if they aren’t causing you any trouble?

We are not well served if everyone does nothing but celebrate the fall of a dictatorship. It is important to ask questions and give warnings. History does not end today, no more than it ended in Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959, or Iran in 1979. Those were all negative examples. There are also positive ones: in South Korea, Central Europe, and Latin America.

A central element in determining whether the celebrations continue is whether there is a material base for stability and continuing democracy. Does Egypt have that basis, being in an unstable region, with a large Islamist movement, a proportionately tiny middle class, and lacking the resources for raising living standards higher?

That’s hard to see. Since I live a little over one hour’s drive from the Egyptian border, nobody would benefit more than me from a moderate, stable, democratic Egypt. I have friends there who are celebrating today and many friends among Arab reformers who are celebrating because they hope it means something better for their countries.

But if I just join everyone else in just saying how great everything is, there would be no point in your reading this article and I would not be doing my job.

Discussions of Egypt are at present dominated by people who don’t know much about Egypt and who make the most elementary errors. And that applies both to the celebrators and those who are saying that this is bad.

When people make the most basic factual mistakes over and over about Egyptian history and the political scene there, one has reason to doubt what they are saying.

The way it is being portrayed, 30 years ago an evil dictator named Husni Mubarak seized power in Egypt–some wrongly think with U.S. help–and repressed the people until this week. In fact, the military–the same military in charge at this moment–has ruled Egypt for 60 years. This was not a one-man dictatorship. Egypt is not a small Latin American country. Mubarak was more chairman of the board than emperor.

Today, the dominant narrative is that Egypt was going on as a nice democratic country, then suddenly this money-hungry monster seized power. But now this one bad man has left and so things can get back to normal. Indeed, though, when Mubarak came to power Egypt had already gone through thirty years of dictatorship. And before that, there was overwhelming dissatisfaction with the multi-party democratic system under the monarchy. The end of democracy was celebrated with celebrations in 1952 as big as the ones we’re seeing now.

I just heard a report from an American radio reporter claiming that the only reason Mubarak stayed in power so long is because the United States backed him, as if the army and elite wasn’t running the country the entire time. For Egypt’s ruling circles blaming everything on Mubarak is a sensible strategy. From this point on, it does make sense for U.S. policy to support the new government, which President Barack Obama is going to do. The question is what the United States will ask of the new government and how to judge it.

But will the establishment view itself as needing to keep the Americans happy–money and weapons–or will it think that to preserve its wealth and power it needs to ride a radical nationalist (or even, further in the future) Islamist wave to popularity?

We should remember that as of this moment the regime is still in power, merely having shed its leader. The regime would have been happy to get rid of Mubarak a couple of years ago, not because he was oppressive but because he was getting too old and trying to foist his son on them.

In a sense, the regime has pulled off one of the greatest public relations’ operations in history. By getting rid of one man is had transformed itself from being incredibly unpopular to wildly popular. If the regime can hold on–and the army isn’t going to give up easily–the results might not be so bad as long as the army isn’t radicalized. And by radicalized I don’t mean Islamized but moving to a radical nationalist position.

During its 60 years in power the regime has gone through different phases but it has responded to conditions. When, in the 1970s, for example, President Anwar al-Sadat faced a leftist faction within his regime, he allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to reemerge as a counterweight. Sadat was assassinated by Islamists–though not by Muslim Brotherhood members–and this gave Mubarak (who was sitting next to him) the feeling that Islamism might just be a problem.

So the question is this: are we at the end of a 60-year-long period of rule by a regime based on the military or are the names merely changing?

There has been much talk about how much money Mubarak stole, yet that is only a small portion of what military officers have made through various business and other activities. Would any government dare investigate their corruption? Of course not.

Or consider the issue of repression. Arguably, the Egyptian regime had become less repressive in many respects over the years but the degree of repression corresponded with the perception of threat. A handful of free-thinking bloggers were rounded up and beaten up; hundreds and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood cadre have faced the same fate. The Islamist threat is not a myth.

Another point to keep in mind is that Egypt is not comprised only of the Muslim Brotherhood and moderate democrats. A key question is whether radical nationalists will emerge as a force also. This has, after all, been the dominant ideology in Egypt for a long time.

Remember the Muslim Brotherhood will not run a presidential candidate. They will support ElBaradei. So many will say during and after a presidential elections that this proves the Brotherhood is moderate and harmless. That is, of course, its strategy.

There was a time when Egypt was a democratic country, from the 1920s until 1952, under the monarchy, there were elections. And in 1952 when the monarchy was overthrow and multi-party democracy was ended, the Egyptian people were just as joyous as they are today. The old system was seen as a failure: deadlocked, corrupt, too pro-Western, unable to destroy Israel, and incapable of bringing rapid development to higher living standards.

A word about foreign policy, of which I will have more to say in the coming days. The United States has just lost Egypt as an asset in confronting Iran and its nuclear program. Would ElBaradei, a man who as arms’ inspecting chief said it wasn’t clear that Tehran was even trying to get nuclear weapons, support sanctions against Iran?

Will the new Egypt continue sanctions against Hamas? The army might want this but it is hard to believe that the Egypt-Gaza border remains closed. If it does, you will know that the army is supervising things. But I predict another joyous celebration as Egyptians and Gazans hug each other followed by the flow of weapons across the border. This would also open Egypt to increasing Islamist subversion.

The best that can be expected would be that Egypt might move from a “pro-U.S.” to a “neutral” position in the region. The theory is that this will be counterbalanced by democratic upheavals elsewhere. Yet unless these take place in Iran, Syria, and Gaza that will not benefit U.S. interests.

So will a democratic system work this time in making life in Egypt better and helping to stabilize the Middle East? Perhaps. Egypt has changed, yet not all the changes are on the positive side. We must, then, keep an open mind and watch developments.

February 12, 2011 | 7 Comments »

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7 Comments / 7 Comments

  1. Shy Guy’s Link is THE worst news I’ve heard yet regarding Egypt. One would expect the Muslim Brotherhood to make statements like this (as they already have), but coming from the most probable eventual leader (assuming the Army allows this) Ayman Nour (leader of the Secular party) is distressing indeed.

    I think Obama’s bump in the polls is simply a reflection of the world’s (unwarranted) euphoria over Egypt. It will come back down to earth soon. Indeed, how Obama handles a potential Egyptian leader that “cancels” the Israel Peace Treaty will no doubt disappoint many as he will be seen as bringing the two countries closer to war (Israel will not stand for any additional Egyptian troops in the Sinai after the one brigade they already let in).

  2. Catarin says:
    February 13, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    I will never forget the killing of four students at Kent State University in the 1960s. It seems incomprehensible to me now that the Ohio National Guard would have opened fire on unarmed students but they did.

    What’s that smell?

  3. Being that the U.S. has trained the Egyptian army and supported it for years, The U.S. will have a say on how the army behaves. It seems the Egyptian army may have learned from past mistakes of the U.S. I will never forget the killing of four students at Kent State University in the 1960s. It seems incomprehensible to me now that the Ohio National Guard would have opened fire on unarmed students but they did. There was not even the threat of that is the deposing of Mubarek.

  4. Not that I expect any of this to impact Obama’s policies towards Israel. He is a Saudi stooge robot who clearly harbors a visceral hatred of Israel, and I expect him to be an asshole towards Israel until the very end of his term, no matter what else happens.

    Read this: IMRA Analyst: US Omits Peace with Israel

    So, this observer is VERY nervous about the next two years. We are leaderless; our so-called “leader” is basically sympathetic to the bad guys. We have to get through this period somehow. But if we can make it to January 2013, things may well improve then.

    You should be nervous: Fox News Poll:

    Potential 2012 Head-to-Head Matchups

    No Republican comes close to beating your Black guy in the Oval Office. Seems he is getting stronger not the other way around?

    The poll asked about several hypothetical head-to-head matchups, and President Obama bests each Republican tested.

    Romney comes closest to Obama, trailing by 7 points (48-41 percent). Last fall Romney was just 1-point back (41-40 percent, September 2010). A year ago, Obama lead Romney by 12 points (47-35 percent).

    The president has an 8-point advantage over Huckabee (49-41 percent), up from a 3-point edge in September (43-40 percent).

    Obama has even wider advantages over Palin (56-35 percent), Gingrich (55-35 percent), and Jeb Bush (54-34 percent).

    Read more: Click here to view the raw data.

  5. This is the best article I’ve read on the subject to date.

    For my own part, long run, I’m not that worried. I think this can turn out well for our interests almost no matter what happens in Egypt, or what events in Egypt provoke elsewhere in the region.

    If there are genuiniely secular democratic regimes in Moslem SW Asia/NE Africa, that are held accountable to the people, then these regimes will be forced to address the needs of their populations by concentrating on education, development, and so on. Conflict with Israel and the West generally would make no sense.

    I’m hardly counting on this, of course. To me, while I too – like Mr. Rubin – am hearing noises from “modern Moslems” I know who expect secular democracy to break out in Egypt, I take this with a large grain of salt. Such people, well meaning as they are, cannot completely avoid being blinded by a bit a wishful thinking, but given their proximity to events, I don’t totally write them off.

    My gut tells me that the best we can hope for, realistically, is the label is being changed but the product is the same. Better than even odds, we’ve got another Islamist regime on our hands. Islamists may represent a minority, but they are the best-organized minority, and in most revolutions in history, it is a well-organized minority that usually seizes power.

    But if that happens, the “battle lines” will be more clearly drawn, won’t they? That has been the problem represented by these so-called “moderate” regimes: They ‘run with the foxes whilst hunting with the hounds’.

    I remember an old cartoon. A man is standing in his living room, pondering the fact that someone threw a rock through his living room window. The offending rock is on his floor, and a note is attached, which reads: “Rocks thrown through your window? Call Al’s Glass Repair!”

    These “moderate” regimes need to stir up anti-Israel and anti-Western hatred in order to distract the people from the results of their inept and corrupt rule. They also need to placate the clerics, who are the ones with real legitimacy, at whose pleasure they serve.

    That works out dandy in a day-to-day sense for the rulers. They are relieved of the responsibility of competent governance, that addresses the needs of their people. They can go on with their boozing and whoring, just so long as they keep the clerics happy, and they keep the population focused on inflated external “enemies” like Israel, the Jews, the Infidels, and so on.

    This game serves yet another external purpose. By stirring up all this hate, the regime can turn to Western countries who might be nervous about instability, who might find their repressive rule distasteful, and say, “We might be not entirely to your liking, but we are the only thing that stands between you and the real radicals taking over”…..Rocks thrown through your window??!!

    Indeed, this has been the standard excuse that, for example, Arabists in the U.S. State Department have used to rationalize leaving Israel twisting in the wind: “Oh, we musn’t alienate the ‘moderate’ Arabs!”

    But the game can’t go on forever. Eventually, the people get fed up with living like crap, and they revolt. It doesn’t help when the people perceive the apparent hypocrisy in terms of the distance between government propaganda, and government behavior (e.g., Israel is the big bad enemy…so why do we maintain a peace treaty with them and cooperate with them on Gaza?).

    And then, if the regime is overthrown and those radicals – many of whom have been produced by the propaganda of the previous regime, as noted above – take over, then what is the West to do? Continue siding with them against Israel? It seems to this observer that, when there are no more ‘moderates’ left, many in the West, if not most, are going to clearly see that the only rational choice will be to back Israel.

    I’ve already seen the beginnings of this dynamic in action. One of my two senators is a garden-variety bleeding heart liberal democrat whose positions on Israel have been wishy-washy at best. But when Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky suggested cutting out aid to Israel as part of a deficit reduction package, this senator of mine was among the very first to strongly and publicly rebut this move. He said in particular something to the effect that ‘at times like these, when there is such great instability in the region, it is all the more important that we back our one democratic ally in the region, Israel’. Another local member of the House of Representatives, whose voting record on Israel put them in the bottom fifth of Congress, has also recently become amazingly pro-Israel.

    Not that I expect any of this to impact Obama’s policies towards Israel. He is a Saudi stooge robot who clearly harbors a visceral hatred of Israel, and I expect him to be an asshole towards Israel until the very end of his term, no matter what else happens.

    So, this observer is VERY nervous about the next two years. We are leaderless; our so-called “leader” is basically sympathetic to the bad guys. We have to get through this period somehow. But if we can make it to January 2013, things may well improve then.