This weekend, the government of Egypt began to collapse. After a week of unrest, last Friday saw the beginning of the end for the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Following in the footsteps of the revolution in Tunisia, the Egyptian people have risen up and kicked out their incompetent and autocratic leadership.
This may sound like a wonderful thing on the surface, but the trust is far more complicated. The likely winner of a free Egyptian election won’t be liberal democrats, but the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Barry Rubin looks at the likely outcomes of the Lotus Revolution and finds that the radicals have the upper edge. Remember, Egypt is the birthplace of radical Islam. Sayid Qutb, the man who inspired the modern Islamist ideology, was an Egyptian. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The number two man in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was Egyptian, So too was Mohammad Atta, the ringleader of the September 11 attacks. Egypt has long been a hotbed of radicalism, and polling shows that many Egyptians are largely sympathetic to Islamist ideology.
What was even more distressing was the risk of Egypt falling into anarchy. Some of world’s greatest treasures are contained in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The museum is next to the headquarters of Mubarak’s political party, the NDP. Already, two priceless Egyptian mummies were vandalized in the chaos. But the Egyptian people took the security of their ancient past into their own hands: a human chain of Cairenes protected the museum and arrested looters until the Army could arrive and secure the building. Many in Egypt have long learned that the only way to keep the peace has been to band together into neighborhood associations: the police would not or could protect protect them. Those ad hoc organizations have helped to save lives and keep order during the revolution.
Who Will FIll The Vacuum?
It appears clear that the Mubarak regime will not survive for very long. The Egyptian people have spoken, and if the Army continues to support the protests, Mubarak will have no choice to flee or die. But the question then becomes about how will fill the power vacuum?
Nobel laureate Mohammad El-Baradei appears the most likely front-runner. El-Baradei was the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a well-known figure. He is also closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. If El-Baradei gains power, the Muslim Brotherhood gains power right with him. At worst, this would make Egypt like Gaza: a radicalized hotbed of Islamist that would pose a serious threat to the stability of the region, and could spark a war with Israel. At best, the Muslim Brotherhood has to compromise and support democratic reform. But given the attitudes of the Egyptian people, a secular government seems unlikely.
The big question is how the military will react. The military is the most widely respected institution in Egyptian society. If they throw in with the Islamists, then Egypt could look like another Gaza. But if the military decides to enforce democratic norms, Egypt could look much more like democratic Turkey. The Egyptian military, thankfully, tends to be less Islamist and more nationalist. A military government, strangely enough, could be more democratic than a populist government led by someone like El-Baradei.
Ultimately, the question is up in the air. There is even the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood and the military will end up fighting for dominance, leading to civil war. This outcome seems unlikely know, but the idea that the Mubarak regime would suddenly collapse in a popular revolution didn’t seem very likely just a few weeks ago.
President Obama: Voting ‘Present’ Again
Here in America, this crisis has exposed just how weak American foreign policy has become under President Obama. The lack of a coordinated response from the Obama Administration was inexcusable. First we had Vice President Biden saying that Mubarak was not a dictator and should not step down—a statement that was both irresponsible and idiotic. For one, Mubarak most certainly is a dictator, if an American one. Second, it signaled to the Egyptian people that the American government was in bed with the regime they were dying to overturn. The damage that statement caused was severe, and may have ripple effects for years.
President Obama was hardly better. There was a time when American leaders were unabashedly and unapologetically in favor of democracy worldwide. While President Obama’s statements on Friday night gave lip service to universal human right, the US government has done little to show support for the people of Egypt. Already, there are comparisons between Obama’s handling of Egypt and Jimmy Carter’s handling of Iran in 1979. The feckless response to the Lotus Revolution demonstrates American weakness abroad at a crucial time in the Middle East. Democratic movements across the region know that America will do little to protect them: Islamist ideologues know that America will do little to stop them. It is a recipe for disaster.
The Future of the Middle East Is Being Written Now
The revolutionary fervor that began in Tunisia is beginning to spread: there have been protests in Jordan and Yemen as well. But these revolutionary movements aren’t all democratic: many are Islamist movements seeking to further isolate the region from Western democratic influence. What we are seeing could be a flowering of democracy or a regional descent into radicalism. And we are sitting on the sidelines.
American policy should be clear: we will not directly intervene in the region without being asked, but we are not neutral. We support democratic movements over Islamist ones, and we will no longer prop up convenient autocrats like Hosni Mubarak.
When Mubarak first came to power, supporting the Egyptian regime made sense: they were willing to support peace with Israel and prevent the outbreak of another regional war. But the dynamics of the region have changed: autocracy feeds Islamism.
Before this revolution, the only place where an Egyptian could speak against the regime was in the mosques. The Muslim Brotherhood was the only group that could stand against the Mubarak regime. If Egypt is to democratize, it must develop civil society where there has been virtually none. That will not happen within a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years. Democracy is a process, not an event, and it will take generations for a democratic culture to develop in Egypt.
That is why sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. If democracy is to flower, it has to be supported, both internally and externally. That means the United States must be willing to engage with Egyptian pro-democracy activists and work to support civil society across Egypt and the region. But if all we are going to do is sit around and wait to see how things shake out, we will miss opportunities to shape events in favor of democracy and human rights.
President Obama said all the right words on Friday, but the right words are not enough. If we want a free and peaceful Middle East we have to support those who will make the Middle East more free and more peaceful. That means becoming more, not less, involved in the region. We don’t have to be heavyhanded in our treatment of the region, but benign neglect will not help anyone.
Right now, Egypt is at a turning point. The future of the region is being written now, and if Egypt tilts towards democracy and pluralism, it could continue to spill over across the region. But if Egypt becomes another Islamist theocracy, the democratic dreams of people from Beirut to Tehran could be crushed. As a believer in liberal democracy, I would like to think that democracy will win out. But pragmatically, I know that democracy is a rarity in human history: the human condition is much more likely to be in bondage to autocrats or tyrants than consensual governments.
But ultimately, the fate of Egypt will be written by the Egyptian people themselves. And they have shown that they will not live with the autocratic regimes that were once common across the region. The rest of the world can either recognize the new reality of the Middle East or be steamrolled by it.