Denial On The Nile

by RALPH PETERS February 1, 2011
In real life, you don’t always get the pony for Christmas. And we’re not going to get everything we’d like in post-Mubarak Egypt. If we continue behaving stupidly, though, we might get a lump of fundamentalist coal in our stocking some holiday season.
I’m sick of all the hot air I’ve heard in the media insisting that our choice in Egypt is either the dead-in-the-water dictator, Hosni Mubarak, or a Muslim Brotherhood takeover that will turn Egypt into another Iran.
First, I’ve seen the slums of Cairo. If I were a young Egyptian—facing a 33 percent official unemployment rate that low-balls the real numbers—I’d be in the streets, too. And I happen to believe that American support for democracy and human rights pays off in the long run on practical grounds: The shah always falls, in the end, and Saddam always turns on you. Supporting dictators buys short-term stability—and big-time long-term trouble.
Cairo slums.
Second, we can’t indulge in fantasies about perfect outcomes. We have to deal with on-the-ground reality. And the reality is that Mubarak’s finished. Yesterday, the military declared that it would not use force against the Egyptian people and that the people have a right to free expression. That’s the kiss of death for the old regime: The army won’t intervene on its behalf. Mubarak’s on the way out. It’s now just a question of timing.
And there’s nothing we can do about it.
The one non-negotiable demand of the millions of angry Egyptians in the streets is that Mubarak has to go. Egypt’s generals got the message. Will we?
Even if we could sustain Mubarak in office—and we can’t--would that be an intelligent choice? So far, the demonstrations have not been anti-American or even anti-Israel. They’ve focused on Egypt’s internal squalor and the government’s disregard of the average citizen. But keep pretending Mubarak’s still the man, and we’ll have anti-American protests, too.
That doesn’t mean the man in the street is currently pro-American. He’s not. He knows we’ve supported Mubarak for decades. But active support for the freedom movement would help soften his resentment.
We need to stand on the side of the people. Now. Otherwise, we’ll only strengthen the appeal of the Islamists—as Mubarak’s heavy hand has done. And failing to get on the side of the people would demonstrate, once again, that we’re hypocrites who talk democracy, but back dictators for our convenience—despite their treatment of the citizens they hold hostage.
The key point, though, is that we’re not going to determine what happens in Egypt. Egyptians will decide that. We can only play on the margins. And better to back the side with the winning hand—which, in the long term, will be the people, not an 82-year-old dictator with dynastic aspirations (which have evaporated).
And no, a democratically elected government in Egypt would not be as pliable a partner for the United States as Mubarak’s regime has been. Don’t like it? Tell me exactly how you’d fix it. Invade? We can’t deal with 30 million hillbillies in Afghanistan, let alone Egypt’s 80 million people and its US-equipped military. Let’s talk real options, not talk-show fantasies.
Yes, a democratic Egypt will see the Muslim Brotherhood represented in parliament. Well, guess what? In democratic elections, sometimes Al Franken gets a seat. Better to have the Islamists inside the tent, uh…waving out…than outside shooting in.
Don’t let the pundits b.s. you, though: Those demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other Egyptian cities are not made up of fundamentalists. While extremists would love to exploit the situation (we’d only help them by continuing to pretend that Mubarak remains a player), they don’t, can’t and won’t control it. Look at the pictures. You don’t see masses of bearded men in traditional dress waving Korans, but guys in jeans and windbreakers, college girls and entire families. What you’re seeing is Egypt’s version of the Tea Party: angry citizens who feel their government has refused to hear their voices. The difference is that, in Egypt, they haven’t had an outlet at the ballot box. These are not Islamist fanatics. Let’s not drive them into the arms of the radicals.
Could extremists take over Egypt? In the long term, it’s a remote possibility. But Egypt isn’t Iran. Let’s look at some facts:
--There’s no Egyptian Khomeini, no towering figure, to lead a fundamentalist coup.
--Iran’s military was hated as an instrument of the shah. Egypt’s military is respected as the country’s defender. In Tehran’s streets, the military was seen as the enemy. In Cairo, the military is welcomed and viewed as a protector.
--The Egyptian military remains the country’s key power broker. It will not permit a fundamentalist takeover.
--Egypt’s urban population is better-educated and more sophisticated than Iran’s was in the time of the shah. Egyptian civilization has a very different history and dynamic.
If you still have to blame somebody for the crisis in Egypt, don’t blame al Jazeera, which is just behaving opportunistically (journalists are journalists…). Blame George W. Bush. Yes, the Tunisian popular uprising that unseated a dictator was the trigger for the demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world today, but commentators have ignored the salient fact that, despite its long and violent ordeal, democracy is currently working in Iraq—the first democracy in a major, large-population Arab country. Egyptians are well aware of it, too. They don’t want to be left behind by Iraqis, at whom they look down. Bush kick-started a long process that will play out over decades—the evolution toward democracy in the world’s most-troubled region.
For that matter, Egypt faces far fewer hurdles on the road to democracy than Iraq has (and still does):
--Egypt’s population is very homogeneous, ethnically, and overwhelmingly Sunni. While Coptic Christians would form a minority voting block that requires state protections, Egypt doesn’t have the Arab-vs.-Kurd, Sunni-vs.Shia party-block problems that result in feuding militias and government deadlock.
--Egypt’s military and other institutions don’t have to be rebuilt from scratch.
--Egypt is not in the middle of, or recovering from, a bloody civil war.
None of this is meant to pretend away the potential trouble Muslim fundamentalists might cause over time, whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood at the polls, or al Qaeda showing up with suicide bombers. But both Egypt’s transition to a rule-of-law democracy and our own regional influence have a much better chance if Washington gets off the fence and sides with the Egyptian people, instead of clinging to the fiction that President Mubarak is still an option.
For now, though, there is zero chance of a short-term fundamentalist takeover. Zero.
We do ourselves no favors when we see fundamentalist boogiemen everywhere that we encounter Muslims. Islamist fanatics are a real and present danger. I want them dead. But not every Muslim who wants a decent job and an education for his kids—and who’s willing to protest and risk his life to that end—is a secret agent for al Qaeda.
We need to face the extent to which our support for dictators has helped create the disastrous conditions in the Middle East today. Above all, we need to get on the right side of history, that of the popular will. And yes, in realist terms, there is a right side of history: The winning side.
In Egypt, the genie isn’t going back inside the bottle. The country has changed irrevocably in the course of the past week. Our policies need to change with it--or we’ll be left behind as surely as President Mubarak will be.
And Israel is not endangered by all this—unless the situation’s handled badly. The key power broker remains the Egyptian military, and the generals and colonels right on down to the privates don’t want another war with Israel. A functioning, if sloppy, democracy in Egypt that can’t blame Israel every time the power goes off might even prove a better neighbor over the long term. But, even if a changed Egypt were less cooperative with Israel, there’s nothing that Israel—or the United States—can do to keep the dead man walking, Hosni Mubarak, in power. It’s time to make the best of what we face—and stop whining that the sky is falling.
Don’t like what I have to say? Tell me, specifically, what you would do to preserve the status quo. Give me a solution that would work better than supporting the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people.
The era of dictators is coming to an end. The fitful process will take generations and there will be setbacks, but I believe the trend is inexorable. The longer we continue to support repressive regimes, the greater the ultimate backlash is going to be against the United States and its interests. Want another Iran? Support another shah.
A consistent problem for our foreign policy has been our fixation on short-term stability, instead of developing long-term strategies. The short-term stability approach always ends up in a bloody mess. Supporting dictators isn’t a fix, it’s a folly. It’s like putting off a trip to the dentist in the hope that a cavity will get better on its own. But the cavity only rots. So do repressed societies.
Finally, we come to the Obama administration’s belated, inadequate and limp-wristed response to the crisis in Egypt. President Obama wants to play the community organizer, bringing the parties in conflict together to find middle ground. But there is no middle ground. In situations like this, you pick a side. Period. Obama’s lukewarm support for democracy and human rights is undercut by his continued insistence that the Mubarak government can reform. That only turns the man in the street against us. Because that man is willing to die to get rid of Mubarak.
President Obama does not like to make hard decisions or take stands until it’s entirely safe to do so. He likes to pose after the bill has passed or the crisis has eased. He’s further crippled by his lifelong lack of interest in foreign policy and his neglect of it as president—except when he can make dramatic, counter-productive speeches (such as his anti-Israel tirade in Cairo), or grandstand on a disastrous treaty, such as the new START deal with a much-delighted Moscow. Like LBJ and Jimmy Carter, his more-capable predecessors (scary, huh?), Obama came to office fixated on his domestic agenda—only to be consumed by foreign-policy catastrophes.
A president who just hopes crucial strategic problems will go away is a greater threat to our security than the Muslim Brotherhood: Vanity and vacillation are no substitute for courage, vision and common sense.
I’m on the side of Egyptians who want better lives and more freedom—not because I’m an idealist, but because I’m a realist. The people are going to win in the end. And I want my country to be on the winning side.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer (and former enlisted man), and the author of 26 books (none of them subsidized by your taxes). His latest novel, just-released, is “The Officers’ Club,” an explicit depiction of the post-Vietnam Army.

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