Brief Speculative Thoughts on Post-Mubarak Egypt

Joshua Tucker asks clarifying questions about whether 2011 might prove to be another 1989. I’ll just note that a very smart friend of mine predicted that something like this would happen in 2011 in the fall of 2010, drawing on an analogy to 1979. The question I found most interesting was the following:

One fundamental difference that I can not help noting between 1989 and 2011, however, is the lack of a powerful external actor enforcing the non-democratic regimes in the Middle East. East-Central European communist propaganda notwithstanding, few probably doubted by the 1980s the most of the region would throw off communism if Moscow ever gave them the opportunity to do so. Thus perhaps the most crucial information transmitted by the success of the Polish and Hungarian revolutions was precisely the fact that the Russians were not planning on intervening. I’m not sure there is anything analogous in place in the Middle East.

Critics of the U.S., and in particular people of an Islamist and pro-Hamas bent, would suggest that we’re playing the Soviet role. Suffice it to say, I don’t think that’s the right way of looking at the U.S. relationship with Egypt since 1979.

One question that is on everyone mind concerns what a genuinely post-Mubarak Egypt might look like. Omar Suleiman is the candidate of continuity, and let’s posit that he won’t be able to pivot hard enough to satisfy the emerging opposition’s evident desire for a clean break. I’m reminded of the unrest in Serbia a few years back, when there was a small number of middle-class urban liberals alongside a motley crew of aspiring integral nationalists and tracksuit-wearing street thugs. And then there was the crisis in post-invasion Iraq, when exiled elites struggled to gain the allegiance of impoverished Iraqis scarred by life under Saddam.

Assuming we see the rise of an illiberal Egyptian regime, is that reason enough to hope for the survival of the regime built by Mubarak or his handpicked successor Suleiman? In 2004, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a terrific with a deep knowledge of how the U.S. national intelligence community views the Arab Middle East, made the case for backing democracy in the region in his excellent book The Islamic Paradox, recognizing that it would empower anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli forces. I eagerly await his take on the current crisis. But here is some of what he had to say about Egypt over six years ago:

In Egypt, where the fundamentalist movement is much older, varied, and the culture is less violent, a democratic alternative to the Mubarak regime is constantly discussed.62 Even if many Egyptians believe change will be slow in coming and the state can- not be violently overturned, certainly a substantial number of Egyptians, perhaps even a majority within the elite, appear to find the current political system corrupt and unsustainable. Egyptians, who are an open people, addicted to movies, magazines, and the outside world, have watched the awful bloodshed in Algeria, the horrific takfir violence of homegrown militants who slaughtered foreigners like cattle, and the revolution and reform movement in Iran. Despite the go-slow approach of Mubarak’s opposition, worldly Egypt is probably the Arab country that has the best chance of quickly marrying fundamentalism and democracy.

It is certainly possible that fundamentalists, if they gained power in Egypt, would try to end representative government. The democratic ethic, although much more common in Egypt than many Westerners believe, is not as well anchored as it is among the Shiites of Iran or in the fatwas of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. But the United States would still be better off with this alternative than with a secular dictatorship, like Mubarak’s, which oppresses and feeds fundamentalism. Without Mubarak or the general who is likely to succeed him, evolution starts. The Iranian model comes into play. Fundamentalists become fundamentalist critics. They become responsible for their own spiritual destiny, in addi- tion to potholes, sewage pipes, imports, exports, and the nation’s credit rating. The State Department talks about encouraging “generational” change. But time moves quickly now. Given how rapidly bin Ladenism went from an idea to an operational reality, we are of course lucky this is so. In twenty years, the Iranian revolution collapsed and the clerical regime, not the United States, became the principal focus of the people’s anger. The same process is unavoidable in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world, if Islamic activists become dictators or elected representa- tives wielding real power.

As for what the United States should do in the region, Gerecht made the following case:

But the United States really has no alternative to switching its allegiances from the rulers to the ruled. To do otherwise is to run against the growing Muslim belief that political legitimacy can come only from the ballot box. It is also to run against the American democratic ethic, which is the wellspring of our national soul. The United States should use its bully pulpit and its economic muscle to encourage those who want change and punish those who do not. In doing so, we will undoubtedly aid those who hate us and we may well hurt true friends. We should be generous in opening our borders to those secular Muslims who cannot stom- ach the democratic transition. Westernized women who grew up under secular dictatorships may find it very rough going. Many Israelis and their American supporters may rise in horror contemplating replacing peace-treaty-signing dictators with fundamentalists who may partly build a democratic consensus on anti-Zionism. But down this uneasy path lies an end to bin Ladenism and the specter of an American city attacked with weapons of mass destruction. Although he certainly did not intend to, Ayatollah Khomeini and his holy warriors illuminated the way. All the other roads lead us back to 9/11.

Read the whole thing. It’s a book, but a short one. (Given the number of bozos I encounter who insist that Mubarak was a favorite of the “neocons,” it is perhaps worth noting that Gerecht has been the Weekly Standard’s go-to person on Middle Eastern affairs for at least a decade. There are many “neocons,” and they tend to believe different things.) I do wonder how the rise of Hamas in Gaza might impact our calculations, and I’m interested to hear about the conversation in Israel regarding the strategic impact of a potential transition in Egypt.

P.S. Not surprisingly, Daniel Larison has a characteristically pessimistic take that is well worth reading.

No matter how it turns out, openly siding with the protesters against the government will mean that the Egyptian alliance as we have known it will be dead or severely damaged. That has to be considered in connection with its effects on other U.S. allies and interests in the region. I am not as concerned with containing and checking Iranian influence as many Americans are, but overthrowing the current regime in Egypt will make it more difficult for Egypt to contribute to the goal of containing Iranian influence. Trying and failing to overthrow the regime will make Egypt look for other, more reliable patrons (it has done so before), and there are other major powers that wouldn’t mind making Egypt into a client state. They aren’t going to have any concerns about how Mubarak and his successors govern the place, and they probably aren’t going to be concerned about growing Iranian influence.

If the government is overthrown, it will probably have a good effect on reducing the suffering of the people in Gaza by ending the Egyptian part of the blockade, but it would make it easier for Hamas to operate. If the U.S. helps bring the regime down, the message will be that the U.S. pulled the plug on one of the only two Arab states to make peace with Israel. What are the odds that any other Arab state is going to see the benefits of formally recognizing Israel after that? As for Egypt itself, the fall of the regime could unleash terrible religious violence. The Christians of Iraq have already paid a terrible price as a result of the “liberation” of their country. The Copts and other Christians are at risk of facing similar treatment.

I am curious as to which states Larison has in mind as potential patrons for Egypt. I can’t imagine Russia or Iran can afford it, China might be able to but sponsoring an Egyptian regime would be fraught with danger. Perhaps the new Egypt could draw from all of the above and others. But would this reduce Egyptian antagonism towards Iran, which could have deeper roots? It’s hard to say. What is fairly clear, unfortunately, is that Israel will become more vulnerable as events unfold.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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