Mubarak’s Egypt on the Brink — of What?
During its storied 5000-year history, Egypt has enjoyed precisely eleven years of genuine democracy. Those eleven years corresponded with the presidency of of the late Anwar al-Sadat.
That wise and gentle half-Sudanese pipe-smoker, who led his country from 1970 to 1981, did the unthinkable for an Egyptian leader: he signed a peace pact with Israel. Naturally he paid for it with his life.
Egypt’s current (and soon-to-be former) president, the 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, has supported Israel as steadfastly as his predecessor — and he’s survived a reported six assassination attempts during his 29-year tenure. We can also say this much about the man: he’s a secularist in a region that bubbles with Islamist fervor, and he has never called for a jihad against the American Satan. He wears a Western-style suit and tie, too.
Shouldn’t we be sorry to see such a paragon of Arab moderation swept into the dustbin by a popular uprising? Well, that’s the question of the day.
Autocratic, repressive and largely unloved, Mubarak has ruled Egypt with pharaonic absolutism and an often brutal fist. He’s almost the archetype of the sort of dictator habitually coddled by our State Department: he may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B. He plays by our rules, respects Israel and contributes immeasurably to the stability of his country. In the Middle East, stability is usually a good thing.
But in Mubarak’s case, the price of that stability was repression. The pressure built for nearly three decades, and it required only a spark to set off a dramatic explosion. That spark was the popular uprising in Tunisia.
Emboldened by the success of Tunisia’s instant revolution, Egyptians of every class and persuasion have spilled into the streets declaring that Mubarak must go. Pandora’s Box has flown open… the dam has burst… the cow (or is it the horse?) has left the barn. All the usual cliches apply: there’s no going back.
What happens to Egypt once Mubarak leaves the barn? It’s anyone’s guess. Most revolutions start out as well-intentioned and even heroic cleansing operations: oppressed citizens overthrow an oppressive regime and everyone cheers the dawn of a better day.
In reality, the oppressed have a lamentable tendency to become the new oppressors. It happened in France in 1789, Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Iran in 1979. And the new oppressors are often immeasurably worse than the old.
How do you keep a revolution from turning bad? In theory, it’s a simple matter of keeping the extremists from commandeering the ship. That means (you guessed it) that moderates are the key to the lasting success of any revolution.
Moderates as revolutionaries? Of course! Just ask George Washington, John Adams and Ben Franklin. These radical moderates helped orchestrate the greatest political revolution in human history — and the most successful. They overthrew an unjust government and actually instituted a more just one in its place.
Washington deserves accolades for refusing to concentrate power in his own hands when the people would happily have made him a king. (Contrary to his lofty marble-sculpted image, the Father of His Country seems to have been perpetually plagued by very human doubts about his abilities.) Contrast him with Robespierre, Lenin, Mao and the Ayatollah Khomeini — revolutionary figures who leaped at the opportunity to seize absolute power and crush the opposition.
What will Egypt’s post-Mubarak government look like? The revolution seems to enjoy massive popular support from all classes — always a positive sign. But while the people revolt openly in streets and squares up and down the Nile, the Muslim Brotherhood is skulking ominously in the shadows.
Founded in 1928 as the Islamic version of (believe it or not) the YMCA, this clandestine organization has long been banned in Egypt. The Brotherhood isn’t a violent jihadist cult like al-Qaeda, but it stands militantly in favor of Islamist principles. Any government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood would be anti-U.S., anti-Israel, anti-West, anti-secular and pro-sharia. In the hands of a strongman drawn from the ranks of the Brotherhood, the new Egypt could emerge as another Iran. In short, a disastrous setback for U.S. foreign policy — not to mention any Westerner who’s determined to see the pyramids in this lifetime.
The Obama administration has already made it clear that it would happily accept a Muslim Brotherhood presence in any new Egyptian government. This policy could simply be a calculated ploy to co-opt the Brotherhood and blunt its teeth… or it could imply that Obama is soft on Islamists — just what the American Tea Partiers want us to believe.
I’d like to think the moderates will prevail — that rational heads will rule the revolution, and that Egypt will emerge as a model participatory democracy with room for dissenting opinions. I’d like to think the ghost of Sadat will hover benevolently over the proceedings. But something tells me that other, more vengeful spirits could sweep across the land of the pharaohs. Stay tuned…