Danger and Opportunity in Egypt

January 31, 2011

The popular uprising in Egypt has left politicians and commentators scrambling for an appropriate reaction. Just about the only thing we know for certain about what will happen is that we cannot predict the outcome and there is very little the United States can do to affect the course of events.

What Happened So Far
To the best of everyone’s knowledge the initial spark for this week’s events occurred on Dec. 17 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit stand vendor set himself on fire in protest over the government’s confiscating the goods he was selling. Over the next few weeks growing protests resulted in the departure of the man who had been president of Tunisia for over twenty years and ongoing attempts at a transition government. These events which have been called the Jasmine Revolution inspired people in other Arab countries to protest against their autocratic governments. Rising food prices throughout the world have increased discontent among people in many poor countries who face spending more and more of their earnings on food. This is likely to have lowered the threshold for normal discontent to boil over into uprisings against oppressive governments. We could go into the causes of rising food prices and whether inflationary policies in the US and other Western countries are contributing to unprecedented cost of basic commodities, but this would take us a little far away from the current events in Egypt.

A week ago people started protesting in Egypt, a country of 85 million people, which is also one of America’s most loyal allies in the Middle East and one of only two Arab countries that have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Initially, the protests seemed unorganized and express general discontent with President Mubarak, Egypt’s leader for the past thirty years. In the past day or so, Mohamed el Baradei, a diplomat and former head of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), has emerged as a spokesman for the opposition which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with lots of documented terrorist ties.

What’s Next?

President Mubarak’s government is on the defensive and has opened negotiations with the opposition. The army has announced that it won’t shoot at protesters. It looks like the rule of the 82-year-old Mubarak is quickly coming to an end. What’s next?

Nobody knows. The best case scenario is a gradual transition to a hopefully maturing democracy that rejects Islamist fanatics. The army, which appears to be respected by the people, may play a role similar to the army in Turkey – a firewall against extremists and anarchy. The Egypt emerging in this scenario would continue to be at peace with Israel and an ally of the United States. This scenario could be seen as a vindication of President Bush’ policy of bringing democracy to the Middle East via Iraq.

But there is a darker, much more dangerous course of events. The initial transition may be to a relatively weak leader like el Baradei followed by the eventual takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood which would turn the country into another Islamic Republic. Many revolutions have started with the initial turnover of power to people that are nice and reasonable, but who are no match to the committed ideologues waiting in the wings. This is what happened over 200 years ago in the French Revolution. It happened again in 1917 in Russia and thirty-two years ago in Iran.

In such a scenario, Israel would face a new threat to its existence, trade with Europe via the Suez Canal could be threatened and disruptions in the oil supply could result in sky-rocketing energy costs (e.g. gas at $5 or more a gallon). Worst of all, the Islamist contagion could spread to other Arab countries and become the main alternative to autocratic, secular governments in the region.

The successful suppression of the uprising by Mubarak seems unlikely especially now that the army has announced that it will not attack the demonstrators. This would be a bloody outcome similar to the 1989 Tinaman Square massacre in China or the suppression of the 2009 Iranian Green movement. Not something the United States should be associated with.

The Obama administration faces no good options. If we keep supporting Mubarak too long, the people of Egypt may see America as an ally with their oppressor. If we support the opposition uncritically, we may aid the ultimate victory of Islamist radicals. Other imperfect US allies may cool their relations with us when they see how quickly we dump an ally of thirty years. Opinions on this are widely divided, but the best approach may be to privately urge Mubarak to leave and threaten loss of US support, open up a dialogue with the army and key opposition figures and try to help with a transition that has some type of safeguards against an Islamist takeover.

It’s a high stakes game with an uncertain outcome. We are concerned whether President Obama has the understanding and experience to navigate this biggest foreign policy crisis of his administration. In matters of national security such as this, all Americans have to hope that President Obama receives the best advice and acts wisely in the interest of the United States.

Israel has more at stake in these events than any other country in the world. Here are comments from Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper:

The administration faced a dilemma. One can guess that Obama himself identified with the demonstrators, not the aging dictator. But a superpower isn’t the civil rights movement. If it abandons its allies the moment they flounder, who would trust it tomorrow? That’s why Obama rallied to Mubarak’s side until Friday, when the force of the protests bested his regime.

The street revolts in Tunisia and Egypt showed that the United States can do very little to save its friends from the wrath of their citizens. Now Obama will come under fire for not getting close to the Egyptian opposition leaders soon enough and not demanding that Mubarak release his opponents from jail. He will be accused of not pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hard enough to stop the settlements and thus indirectly quell the rising tides of anger in the Muslim world. But that’s a case of 20:20 hindsight. There’s no guarantee that the Egyptian or Tunisian masses would have been willing to live in a repressive regime even if construction in Ariel was halted or a few opposition figures were released from jail.

Now Obama will try to hunker down until the winds of revolt die out, and then forge ties with the new leaders in the region. It cannot be assumed that Mubarak’s successors will be clones of Iran’s leaders, bent on pursuing a radical anti-American policy. Perhaps they will emulate Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who navigates among the blocs and superpowers without giving up his country’s membership in NATO and its defense ties with the United States. Erdogan obtained a good deal for Turkey, which benefits from political stability and economic growth without being in anyone’s pocket. It could work for Egypt, too.

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