The Corner

‘Save That Sound Bite; It Might Come Back to Haunt Him’

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. His books include Islamic Fundamentalism in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood. Below are his reactions to the latest from Egypt.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do you think Mubarak [has reportedly] decided to step down now, not September?

Barry Rubin: Since we know that he wanted to stay until September, the only explanation is that he was pressured to do so by the army leaders. I assume that they said: “We wanted to keep you until September, we did our best, but the demonstrations are continuing and building. The country might be headed toward anarchy, bloodshed, or an Islamist takeover. For the good of the Egypt which you love so much and have served all your life you must resign. It is your last service to our beloved country.”

Many observers cannot understand the situation because they don’t distinguish between the leader and the regime. This regime has lasted under three presidents for almost 60 years. People keep talking about the “Mubarak regime” but that’s totally untrue. It was the Nasser regime and then the Sadat regime. So the resignation of one man and the resignation of the regime — which is comprised of thousands — is not the same.

A second factor is the institutional interest of the armed forces and intelligence services. They do not want to be dragged down with Mubarak. Either they can try to rule — or at least keep the regime together — or they can make a deal with the opposition to leave them alone, purge no one (or only very few), not put people on trial, not interfere with their corruption, and maintain their budgets.

It is not only the interests of Egypt at stake but those of the ruling class, which is a large group.

Lopez: Is this the result of a Google-executive-instigated revolution in any way?

Rubin: There are four obvious shorter-term factors that caused this event: A bad economic situation, including higher food prices; the development of a small class of upper-middle-class young people who use social media and have been influenced by international and Western ideas; the example of Tunisia; and the knowledge that the Mubarak era was drawing to a close due to his age. Let’s remember that Mubarak’s own refusal to retire and insistence on having his son as successor helped produce this result by undercutting his support in the elite.

But there could be a fifth factor: The Muslim Brotherhood’s organized effort. I don’t mean to overstate this. I know it is widely said that the Brotherhood was caught by surprise and only joined the movement after it had begun. That might well be true, though they then gave it an important organizational edge and provided many cadres.

Yet I note that the Brotherhood’s strategy changed to a more militant, aggressive stance. One day, many months or years from now, we might find out more about this central role.

Lopez: What might this mean for Egypt? For Israel? For the U.S.?

Rubin: It depends on what comes next. The fact is that people — including supposedly sophisticated ones — can’t seem to tell the difference between the leader and the regime. Do both Mubarak and the regime go, or just Mubarak?

Lopez: Did the U.S. and international media influence events there? For better or for worse?

Rubin: Much less than they think.

Lopez: How might you beg the Obama administration to respond?#more#

Rubin: I think it has already responded, with rejoicing about how people power has brought a transition to democracy. Save that sound bite — it might come back to haunt him in the future. Unless the situation in Egypt turns out really well, he’s going to look very bad.

As a registered Democrat, I hate to say it, but he sounded more like a community organizer than a president in his response. There was no trace of a national-interests approach, or any caution, or any sense of how this would damage U.S. allies.

On this same day, the highest-ranking U.S. intelligence official in Senate testimony described the Muslim Brotherhood as a largely secular organization that eschews violence. Most people will focus on the first stupidity but it is the second that is really incredible. After all, the Brotherhood advocates murdering Americans in Iraq and its leader has called for jihad against America.

The level of leadership and the knowledge base of the executive branch is so low as to be shocking. I’ve been talking to people from different countries who say things like, “How can Americans be so naïve?”

Lopez: Who are America’s friends in Egypt? Who are clearly not?

Rubin: The friend is the regime, like it or not, possibly the army though it can turn toward radical nationalism very fast if it decides that serves its interests. The enemies are not only the Islamists but also another group that may be almost or just as large, the radical nationalists. 

Lopez: Human Rights. Christians. Democracy. Any of these winners today?

Rubin: Christians in Egypt, truth be told, are likely to lose either way. A more radical regime is likely to tolerate more attacks on them, a weak moderate one is likely to tolerate attacks so as not to set off Islamist militants. The existence of some anarchy will also endanger them.

Human rights and democracy? It depends on what comes next. There’s a tendency to reason like this: The People are naturally good. Therefore everything will turn out all right. Don’t you have faith in The People?

But we should know by now how history works. There are greedy people who want to seize power and who often become politicians. There are ideologically driven people who want to impose their ideas on others. At the moment of triumph everybody loves everybody else but then they start quarreling.

The wishful thinking caused by rejoicing in Egypt is excusable; the wishful thinking elsewhere is not.


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