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Follow me on twitter http://twitter.com/#!/muddleeastEverybody knows that democracy is a good thing, and therefore everyone should support the revolution in Egypt, if we believe Hillary Clinton and some Western European leaders. But this is the Middle East and not Western Europe.
Things usually work differently here. Hillary Clinton and her audience in the U.S.A. seem to be under the impression that Mubarak will be replaced by a democratic statesman, and that, Czechoslovakia-style, a benign and enlightened democracy will replace the mukhabarat (secret police) state of Mubarak. It might.
But the odds of Egypt becoming a Middle Eastern Czechoslovakia or Switzerland might be slim. In the best case, Egypt will probably be another dictatorship, slightly better or worse than the Mubarak “presidency.” In the worst case Egypt will turn into an Islamic Republic, in the orbit of Iran. This outcome is favored by every circumstance of history and culture. An Egyptian remarked that there was nothing to fear, since Egyptian civilization was thousands of years old. That is true, and in all those years, Egypt did not have a decade of democratic rule. There is also no reason to believe that Egypt will be any different from most of the other Arab or Muslim countries of the Middle East. In these countries, change is usually change for the worse. The enemy of the Very Bad is the Much Worse. This has been true in almost every revolution, and certainly every one in the Middle East.
As of this moment, and perhaps for a few months hence, nobody can predict the outcome of events in Egypt. Outsiders can only interpret Middle East events in terms of their own frames of reference. Some of the opinions seem very strange.
U.S. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton opined:
“What happens is truly up to the Egyptian people. And what the United States is doing is sending a very clear message – we wish to see everyone refrain from violence,” she continued.
She also said:
[W]e are on the side, as we have been for more 30 years, of a democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights to its people.”
The U.S. has never done anything to support a democratic Egypt and certainly never did anything for the political and economic rights of the Egyptian people. Since the CIA-supported coup of Gamal Abdul Nasser Egypt has been a one-party plutocracy. Women, workers and non-Muslims had minimal rights. Huge sums were spent on armaments. This did not change regardless of whether the patron power was the USSR or the U.S. and it could not be changed. The fact is, nobody can engineer democracy in another country. These rights were never an issue. No matter who is in power in Egypt, the people will not have any rights. The way things work in the Arab Middle East, if you are in power, there is no point in giving other people economic and political rights, because then they will promptly put you out of power and keep all the goodies for themselves.
Perhaps this sort of Hillary Clinton rhetoric is meant for domestic consumption, but even this mildly unrealistic anodyne was criticized. Americans haven’t learned that state policy is not connected to morality, and they fully expect their officials to sabotage a key ally.
It is possible, however, that American officials really believe in this vision. Unlike Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former U.S. official Elliot Abrams has, at least in theory,no domestic audience to satisfy. He has gone so far as to assert that George Bush was right, and that the fall of Saddam Hussein has initiated a new era of democracy in the Middle East, which bore fruit in the unrest in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt.
It is not likely that Abrams is right, and there are ominous signs that his optimistic assessment might be wrong. The unrest has occurred so far in Tunisia, in Jordan, in Yemen and in Egypt. All of these regimes are relatively moderate and pro-West. Jordan and Egypt have peace treaties with Israel. There is no such thing as a truly spontaneous demonstration in a police state, certainly not in four of them. Isn’t it strange that the same spirit of democratic fervor did not ignite “spontaneous” demonstrations in Libya and Syria and Iran? After all, these countries have regimes that are far more corrupt, oppressive and violent than those of Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia or Yemen.
The Egyptian revolution has drifted, virtually leaderless. Muhammad el Baradei was put forward as the spokesperson of the revolution but he seems to have few backers and doesn’t seem to know what he wants, other than eliminating Mubarak. In the early days, one voice was strangely absent from these protests. The largest opposition group in Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood.
A coalition of opposition groups have told the Egyptian government that they will only begin talks on a transition to democracy once beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak stands down, the Muslim Brotherhood said on Tuesday. “Our first demand is that Mubarak goes. Only after that can dialogue start with the military establishment on the details of a peaceful transition of power,” said Mohammed Al-Beltagi, a former member of Parliament from the Brotherhood.
Beltagi said the opposition was operating under an umbrella group, the National Committee for Following up the People’s Demands, which includes the Brotherhood, the National Association for Change headed by Mohamed El-Baradei, political parties and prominent figures including Coptic Christians.
Muhammad el Baradei looks more and more like the reasonable and ill-fated Alexander Kerensky of the Russian revolution or the unfortunate Shapour Bakhtiar, the Prime Minister of Iran whose liberal concessions paved the way for the dictatorship of the Ayatolla Khomeini.
The demonstrators are not religious fanatics and Israel haters. They are earnest supporters of democracy with a legitimate grievance, as the Washington Post noted:
Fears of an Islamist takeover of Egypt, the protesters say, are vastly overblown, and demonstrators have emphasized that the nation’s minority Christian community has been heavily involved in their movement. Although members of the Muslim Brotherhood – the nation’s best-organized opposition group – have turned up at the protests in greater numbers in recent days, the group is hardly driving the demonstrations.
“Washington has been very anxious about what’s happening here, but it shouldn’t be. It should be happy,” said Mohammed Fouad, 29, a software engineer. “This will reduce terrorism. When people have their voice, they don’t need to explode themselves.”
Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition group in Egypt, especially outside Cairo. In Iran the Khomeini revolution was made by communists and supporters of women’s rights. They all thought they were supporting democracy. In a year, they were all dead. History does not not necessarily repeat itself, but it might.
Mubarak announced that he will not run for President, but insists on staying in office. His obstinacy creates a convenient incubator for revolution. Every hour that the crowd mills around Tahrir square makes the new movement more vulnerable to radicalism. Mubarak hasn’t the moral or political legitimacy to remove the demonstrators by force, and they have nothing better to do than to stand in Tahrir square. On the other hand, nobody will move against Mubarak unless they can be sure beforehand of U.S. support to end the “revolution.”
Of course Al-Jazeera and other pro-Arab media are trying and will try to cast Israel as anti-democracy, but Israeli officials have said nothing against democratic reform in Egypt. An Israeli initiative to get Western powers to force Egypt to abide by its treaty obligations underlines the Israeli intent, but it is probably naive.It is rather like asking the European Union to persuade Osama Bin Laden not to use terror. If an Islamist government takes over Egypt, they will not be amenable to Western pressure.
Unfriendly media want everyone to forget Avigdor Lieberman’s unfriendly remarks about President Mubarak which were criticized so severely by the same media that now call Mubarak a tyrant. Of course, Israel has no say, and ought to have no say, in what happens in the domestic politics of Egypt.
Undeniably Israel has a great deal to lose if an Islamist regime abrogates the peace treaty as well as the arrangement under which Egypt supplies Israel with natural gas. Egypt also has an army equipped with American weapons. The tanks in streets of Cairo are American Abrams tanks, and the aircraft that overflew Cairo are F-16s. If the Hamas regime in Gaza is backed by a radical Islamist regime in Cairo, it will be unpleasant for Israel.
An Islamist regime in Egypt might be much worse for the United States than for Israel. Its policy will deliberately be inimical to U.S. interests, as hatred of the West is integral to radical Islamism, as is hatred of democracy. will Does Hillary Clinton imagine that a government of the Muslim Brotherhood will ensure the political and economic rights of the Egyptian people?
Unlike Israel, the United States, can quietly do something in Egypt other than uttering public quixotic calls for peace, democracy and non-violence. The U.S. has a great deal at stake in Egypt, more than Israel. An Israeli official is quoted as saying:
“For the United States, Egypt is the keystone of its Middle East policy. “For Israel, it’s the whole arch.”
This is untrue. For the U.S., Egypt is (almost) the keystone of Middle East policy . For Israel, as for Jordan, Saudi Arabia and a few other countries. the U.S. is the keystone and foundation of national policy. The U.S. lost Iran in 1979, but its inroads into Egypt, thanks to Israeli peace concessions, gave the U.S. an additional point of influence in Egypt. An Islamist takeover in Egypt will spell the end of U.S. influence in the Middle East. The process that has already begun in Lebanon will be one step closer to completion. The Iranian will control not only the straits of Hormuz, but the Suez canal as well. They will have virtually a full lock on Middle East oil supplies to Europe. Officials in Saudi Arabia and Jordan are watching carefully to see what the U.S. will do in Egypt and what happens there.
Stable democracies could only be supported in Europe when there was a large educated and urbanized middle class. In the Arab Middle East, this social structure does not exist for the most part. Secular and reformist regimes are supported by a thin layer of the urbanized elite, and resented by a poor and usually disenfranchised and traditionalist population of farmers. These also supply the manpower of the army. The power of such regimes always rests on the loyalty of army troops, and those troops, unlike their educated officers, will always support traditional regimes if they can.
The U.S. could possibly stop the dangerous drift of the Egyptian revolution, but it will only do so if U.S. officials have a realistic assessment of the dangers, and understanding of the likely scenarios that will unfold if the Egyptian revolution is guided by a “coalition” headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. One can only imagine that Saudi King Abdullah was appalled by the naive comments of American officialdom. U.S. officials appear to as clueless and paralyzed as they were in 1979, when the Islamists took over Iran. Then, as now, a popular revolution appears to be drifting aimlessly toward populist dictatorship.
CAUTION – This analysis and others have been (and will be) rapidly overtaken by events.
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