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The Egypt Conundrum

 4 February 2011

By Elliot Chodoff

As the Cairo protests continue into the end of their 11th day, cheers, fears, and wishful thinking prevail in the media reports and commentaries.  The prevalent themes blend into the fanciful predictions that the dictatorial Mubarak regime is being overthrown by a popular democratic movement. The Muslim Brotherhood, a small opposition party, is a benign onlooker, having renounced violence, and the US is correctly distancing itself from the dictator, allowing democracy to finally surface, after three decades of backing the wrong horse.  The time has come to allow the progressive peoples of the region to overthrow their regimes and step forward to democracy.
 
This picture is comforting, perhaps, but, unfortunately, unrelated to reality.  While it would be nice if democracy were to suddenly erupt around the Middle East, the fact remains that the upheavals of the past few weeks have little to do democratic reforms.  True, these are popular movements, fueled in large part by the technology of social networks.  But behind them stalks the specter of Islamic radicalism that will likely rear its ugly head if the current regimes descend into chaos.
 
The Egyptian case is very different from that of Tunisia, despite the fact that the latter sparked the former.  Transition in Tunisia, while still underway, is proceeding gradually, with a fair chance of producing a stable system.  In Egypt, the opposition, driven by the radical Muslim Brotherhood and encouraged by the statements of the US administration, is holding out for the immediate collapse of the regime.  Despite rumors to the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical jihadist Islamic movement, and is the ideological forebear of al Qaeda, Hamas, and other global terrorist organizations. 
 
Revolutions have an unfortunate proclivity to be hijacked by forces whose values are often antithetical to those of the high-minded revolutionaries who overthrew oppressive regimes.  One may presume that the French people were as dismayed by Robespierre’s Reign of Terror as the Russians were by Stalin, and, more recently as we know, the Iranians by the Islamic Republic of the ayatollahs.
 
Unfortunately, and despite the fact that he is a dictator, Hosni Mubarak is the only viable game in town for the US, Israel, and the West.  This is not simply a case of the classic, “he may be a murderer, but he’s our murderer.”  The alternative to Mubarak, if his regime is permitted to collapse, is chaos, followed by either a military dictatorship or the Muslim Brotherhood.  It should be clear that no amount of American castigation of Mubarak, accompanied by public calls for his ouster, will make the Brotherhood support US policies.  At stake are issues far beyond the peace treaty with Israel (important as that might be), and include Egyptian support for the war on terrorists in the Middle East, military cooperation, and US access to the Suez Canal.
 
A military dictatorship will be no better than the Mubarak variety, and, after the sudden American withdrawal of support from the Egyptian regime, it will likely be far more reticent to throw in its lot with the US.  Along with other US allies in the region and around the world, the Egyptians are certainly wondering about the value of American friendship when the American president can change policy 180 degrees in the span of hours.  Further, what is the value of American weapons when a sovereign government is humiliated by the US and told publicly that the use of those weapons will lead to the threat of an arms embargo?  Knowing that Vladimir Putin has no such qualms about the use of weapons provided by his country, American allies are likely to begin searching for other sources of support, which may appear to be more consistent and longstanding.
 
Had the US supported Mubarak’s position, it could have remained in a position to wield influence, in Egypt and other countries, while improving the chances of a gradual and stable shift toward greater democracy.  As we have seen in other cases, recent and not-so-recent, elections alone (even if they are free and open) are no guarantee of a transition to democracy.  In 1933, Germany freely elected Hitler as chancellor. That election heralded the end of German democracy for the next two decades.  Building democracy requires institution-building, as well as encouraging and strengthening a middle class, along with inculcating democratic social and political values in a society.  Democracy is worth waiting for, and it takes a lot of painstaking work.  Those who attempt to impose it by quick fixes and slogans are likely to be disappointed when the emerging outcome is worse than the dictatorship the revolution strove to replace.?