Egypt: The Balancing Act

The one aspect that is to be rejoiced in Egypt’s revolution, freedom, is also the one that poses the most complex threat to stability in that region.  As much as we like to proclaim our support of democracy, what we really want is stability, and the two are certainly not synonymous.

Much has been made of the parallels between Egypt’s recent uprising and the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but we would do better to learn from the history of Egypt as well.  The last time the people gained their “freedom” was 1959, and the man who took power in that struggle was Gamal Abdel Nasser. 

America would regret it.

One of the most pervasive fears to many Americans is the possibility of an Egypt ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, and in many ways we are right to be afraid.  While the Muslim Brotherhood is representative of only a scant 1/3 of the entire population of Egypt, that statistic was only relevant prior to these revolutions.  Politics will be radically transformed in the aftermath of the uprising, and it is not a stretch to foresee an outlawed, demonized party under Hosni Mubarak become political machine in a post-Mubarak world.

However, this singular terror of radical Islam is any many ways shortsighted, and the rise of Nasser is the best example of why Americans ned to broaden their perspective on the issue.  Nasser was not an Islamic extremist; he was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.  He was a pro-democracy socialist who envisioned a world of Arab unity.  As a secular warlord, Nasser brought about more instability and conflict in the Arab world than perhaps any other ruler:

…under his influence, Egypt became an aggressively destabilizing force in Middle Eastern politics. His dream of a unified Arab world helped inspire convulsions and coups from Lebanon to Iraq. He fought two wars with Israel, and intervened disastrously in Yemen. His army was accused of using poison gas in that conflict, a grim foreshadowing of Saddam Hussein’s domestic tactics. And his pursuit of ballistic missiles was a kind of dress rehearsal for today’s Iranian nuclear brinkmanship — complete with a covert Israeli campaign to undermine his weapons programs.

So, the conflict in Egypt will hardly result in a choice between a pro-America, secular regime and an anti-Western Islamic society.  The reality is that Islamic or not, the next government will be far less receptive to our needs than Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  The situation is not a black and white struggle, but more likely, it will result in a complex political conflict with the favorite representing the lesser of two evils…

Now, I won’t say I know for sure that Mubarak will fall tomorrow, resign prior to scheduled September elections, or even cede his power at all.  Many news outlets are content to assert with absolute certainty that “Mubarak is done,” but the man has reigned in Egypt for over 20 years.  If there is one way to describe him, it is that he is a survivor.  So, pardon me if I won’t join in with the speculation.

That being said, Mubarak is 82 years old, and even if he somehow edges this one out, his days are certainly numbered.  We want to be on the right side of this one when it all plays out, and that means America needs to be able to tip-toe around the issue as long as we possibly can. 

We have two messages to send, and they are aimed at appealing to two diametrically opposed interests.  The first message is directed at our other dictator friends in the region.  If we pull the rug out from under Mubarak too early, we may gain the support of the people in Egypt, but we’ll certainly lose our position of influence with the other pro-America dictators.  Protests in Yemen and Jordan are also of serious concern, and we don’t want to give the impression that we’ll jump ship at the first sign of trouble 

In this respect, the Administration is handling the situation very well.  They have not outwardly advocated any result, but at the same time, they have left the door open to taking serious action against the Mubarak regime.  We are advocating “gradual political reform,” which is not only in the interest of our relations with other nations but also in interest of the Egyptian people.  As much as they may want Mubarak out of power, rationally it benefits them more to have a structured transition of power that allows for true democracy.

However, while this gradual approach is all well and good, it may not be possible given the complexities of our second audience: the Egyptian people.  There is no better indication of America’s stature in the world than the reaction of Egyptians towards the United States.  They are looking to us for leadership, and they want desperately for us to support their revolution absolutely.  For the reasons previously mentioned, such a task is undesirable for both parties, but if Mubarak’s fall becomes inevitable, our leadership must be willing to dump Mubarak and throw our support behind the people.

While the next regime will certainly be less supportive of the West, we want to make sure that the people of Egypt vote a party into power who is not diametrically opposed to America, and the longer we hold our support for Mubarak, the less likely we are to see that result.   The power of the Muslim Brotherhood and any secular, anti-Western party will be strengthened the longer we are perceived to be against the Egyptian people.  The Muslim Brotherhood will win if it is able to capitalize on intense anti-American popular sentiment, and if we support Mubarak up to the moment he resigns, we will have lost the political battle.

So, we need to understand that the balancing act has a purpose, and that purpose is not democracy; it is stability.  We need to support Mubarak long enough to assure our other allies that we will not abandon them at the first sign of trouble, but we also need to keep close tabs on the public opinion of the Egyptian people.  We have to be able to jump ship in time to shore up popular support in an upcoming election. 

It is not impossible to satisfy both worlds, but it requires immense political dexterity…and the stakes could not be higher.



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