Since I’m heading to Egypt soon I thought I’d ask for a briefing from my old friend and colleague Lee Smith, author of the brilliant book The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, which is required reading for everyone who wants to understand the Middle East. He lived for some time in Cairo and understands that country’s history and politics better than most.
MJT: You’ve spent a lot of time in Egypt and even lived in Cairo for a while. What’s your sense about where the country is heading now that Hosni Mubarak has been removed from power?
Lee Smith: I am not sure that anyone knows where Egypt is going right now. It seems the predominant fear in Western policy circles, and perhaps in much of Egypt and the rest of the region as well, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to take power. But if the Brotherhood is as politically savvy as many argue, I’m not so sure they are eager right now to take ownership of a country that has no money to buy the food it needs to feed 83 million people. Saudi Arabia pledged $4 billion which, even if they keep their promise as they sometimes do not, is not going to go very far when Egypt needs billions just for food subsidies. The Obama administration’s $1 billion in debt relief and another billion in loans and grants is not going to cover the bill either. Since the uprising, Egypt has been hemorrhaging cash with steep drops in the tourism industry and the flight of all that foreign investment that came into the country with Gamal Mubarak and his crew.
Some analysts, like Martin Kramer, argue convincingly that the Egyptians are going to have to use the country’s instability to raise money; instead of a stable, or static, Egypt like the one that Mubarak held together as an authoritarian regime, the new regime is going to need to present an Egypt on the verge of catastrophe and spinning out of the US orbit—unless Washington foots the bill.
Other analysts, like Amr Bargisi, think that Egyptian strategy is not that calculated. He argues that no one in Egypt knows what they’re doing, not the army and not the political class, that they’re all just winging it. Given the sometimes chaotic nature of Egyptian society, this perspective is also convincing. I suspect it’s a combination of the two—the ruling classes are essentially rudderless but know that the only way out is by demanding a hefty sum from the Americans. In effect, this is what the peace treaty was in the first place—Washington bribing Cairo not to wreck itself on the shoals of another war with Israel. For thirty years all that cost was $2 billion a year, but now it’s going to cost a lot more: the pity is that we don’t have the money for it.
I think if you want to get a sense of where Egypt is heading, it’s useful to understand the mounting disappointments of the revolutionaries. I don’t mean to say that one should take any pleasure from the frustrations of people who wanted something better for their country, but it is important to know more precisely what it is they wanted—or rather, given where the revolution started where it hoped to go. Now that many of the revolutionaries are becoming angry with a military they embraced as brothers during the heady days of the uprising, it is clear they never understood the role of the army in the first place.
Egypt’s is a military regime, the same regime that has been running things since Nasser’s 1952 coup. It seems Mubarak had forgotten this fact and imagined he was leading a Mubarak dynasty, with his son Gamal to succeed him. It seems the revolutionaries were also ignorant of this, and it is likely to be every bit as disastrous for them as it was for the man they toppled from power. So, if you want to know where Egypt is going, perhaps the central, and most astonishing, fact seems to be that the revolution never understood the real character of the regime that it was rebelling against—that is a bad sign.
MJT: I’d like to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want to be in charge at a time when no one is sure the country can even keep feeding itself. Hardly anyone will bail out a radical Islamist regime, after all, and a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt will scare tourists away for years. But these guys have been waiting so long for their moment and it might be a long time indeed before they have a better chance than they have right now. And the only Islamist party that demonstrates much economic sophistication is Erdogan’s ruling AKP in Turkey. You know the Brothers better than I do, though. How savvy are they, really? And how moderate or not-moderate are they?
Lee Smith: I’m not sure if a Brotherhood-dominated regime will scare away tourists. What scares tourists are attacks on Coptic churches and street clashes that lead to dozens of deaths, like we have seen over the last few months. There haven’t been any Islamist attacks against tourists like there were in the 80s and 90s, but of course that would also keep people away. But I doubt we would see much of that with an MB-dominated regime—unless of course rivals wanted to trash the government by undermining the economy, as the Islamist factions did with Mubarak two decades ago. Turkey, as you note, is run by an Islamist party and tourism there is doing great—and it seems they are not about to cut off the flow of alcohol.
I don’t know the Brotherhood that well, but I’ve met some of the leadership in Egypt, like Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, one of the two MB candidates who announced they were going to run for president. I was thinking the other day that I’m going to have to look at my notes in case the guy comes to figure prominently, but that I remember so little about the meeting is perhaps an indication of the impression he made on me. He professed all the opinions you’d expect him to hold, those held by Egyptian professionals across the political spectrum—the Mubarak regime is bad, US support for Mubarak is bad, US support for Israel is bad, etc. He’s a doctor known as one of the more moderate members of the younger set, but his youth is relative to the average age of the leadership, which has got to be somewhere in the late 70s. You don’t get young people who join the Muslim Brotherhood with an urge to challenge its well-established themes—e.g., “I like the emphasis on Islamic sharia, but I have a problem with the anti-Israel agenda.” When people join the Muslim Brotherhood they sign on for the whole package and they know what they’re getting. The organization is over 80 years old so there aren’t many surprises.
I don’t know how politically savvy they are, or what exactly people mean by that. Does it mean they know how to run political campaigns? Yes, but so do the apparatchiks of the one-time ruling National Democratic Party. The NDP has been disbanded since Mubarak’s fall, which only means that the various patronage networks that operated under the NDP umbrella are no longer consolidated as such—these networks still exist, so if someone wants to buy the support of a large clan, or part of a small town, it’s now up for grabs.
If we’re talking about how the Muslim Brotherhood navigates the political arena, that’s something else again and it’s important to keep in mind that we are talking about a very immature political culture. This is not Lebanon, where you have 18 different sects that have been competing with each other for centuries, and where someone like Walid Jumblatt knows how to project power far beyond what his small constituency of Druze should entitle him to. Like much of the rest of the region, Egyptian constituencies are accustomed to winning favors in accordance with how they arrange themselves alongside the palace. When that center of gravity changes, or when it is absent, all these actors are cut loose and don’t know how to position themselves.
For instance, consider the Coptic Church, which as an institution representing a minority sect had no choice but to stay close to the regime, and hence since the fall of Mubarak has shown its lack of acumen. In the March referendum on the constitution the church directed its flock to vote against the amended articles—a vote that put it on the side of the revolution but against the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, which both wanted a “yes” vote. Why on earth would a minority sect, composing roughly 10 percent of the population, expose itself like that, especially when the church could safely assume its parishioners would vote against the MB in any case?
I don’t mean to pick on the Copts, who are under serious pressure right now and facing violence like they haven’t seen in some time, but since they are not going to be protected by the Americans or the rest of the West they need to figure out how to protect themselves, politically, in this new environment. The Brotherhood, by contrast, has learned over the last 80 years how to marshal its forces, when to keep its head down, when to push, and when to align itself with the ruling power, as it did with the referendum, earning some good will from the army by voting “yes.” Whether that means its leaders will now make their run for power is unclear. Sure, it’s a good time for them, but they’re in no hurry, especially as it might be a bad time to take responsibility for running Egypt. Why not sit in the background for a bit and then come in and pick up the pieces when they are begged to do so by the electorate, and/or the army?
To my mind, the debate over the MB’s “moderation” is mostly misguided. Some of it takes place on an academic level where scholars who are deeply invested in their research of Arab societies see it only in that context. So you have academics describing Yusuf al-Qaradawi as a “moderate” because he tackles sexual themes openly. That’s great for an Egyptian teenager who wants to know how his sexual urges and habits fit into an Islamic worldview, but it’s useless for US policymakers. In that case, you have to look at what Qaradawi said, for instance, about the necessity to go and fight US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; in this case, he is not moderate in any fashion relevant to American policy.
The other part of the debate takes place among policymakers, but much of this work is simply a sign that we have resigned ourselves to the notion that the MB and other Islamist groups will play an important political role in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Seeing how that is the case, policymakers and analysts are giving a positive spin on an unhappy development: i.e., because we can’t do much about it there is no use dwelling on the negative, and it is preferable to be optimistic about the outcome. But this is not dealing with the world as it is, this is simply ignoring reality.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a problem for us because the organization is anti-Western at its core. Is it more moderate than Al Qaeda? Yes, sure, because it was broken by Nasser in the 50s and 60s, but the AQ index is absurd. The idea is that if you’re not Al Qaeda, you’re moderate. But there are other bad things coming out of the Middle East besides Al Qaeda, like for instance Hezbollah, which isn’t even Sunni. The main concern is this: Al Qaeda is a bunch of guys who enjoy the financial, logistical and political support of Middle Eastern regimes. So imagine that turned around—a Muslim Brotherhood government commanding a real Arab army, like Egypt’s, with tanks, artillery, an air force and navy. Does anyone think that the late Bin Laden’s jihadis are more dangerous than that?
MJT: Why is the Egyptian military warming up to the Muslim Brotherhood all of a sudden? Hasn’t it been pretty staunchly against the Muslim Brotherhood up until now?
Lee Smith: The military has long had relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Nasser and Sadat were variously affiliated with the Brotherhood. Nasser crushed them when he came to power since they threatened his rule, and Sadat used them as a counterweight to his opponents, leftists and Nasserists. By the time Sadat let them out of jail they’d mellowed—in part because they’d been beaten and in part because they’d just gotten older. Jihad is a young man’s game. Young men are the agents of almost all the world’s violence and jihad, fighting the infidel or fighting non-Islamic governments is no different. Mubarak’s problem wasn’t the Brotherhood as such, but younger cadres of Islamists, like Islamic Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islameya, whom he fought throughout the 80s and 90s. Mubarak’s MB was a bunch of guys, middle-aged and older, who were doctors, lawyers, engineers and professors who didn’t pose much of a military threat to the regime, and he still put them in jail. All of these guys did time in jail.
Still, there’s this general idea out there that Mubarak ended up empowering the Islamists, including the MB, by choking off the liberals. It’s certainly true that Mubarak put liberals in jail, some for no apparent reason, and others it seems because they’d really broken laws. He threw one of his former speechwriters, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, in jail for petty reasons. I don’t much care for Ibrahim; he’s a charming and courageous man but his support of Hezbollah in the wake of the 2006 war with Israel puts him beyond the pale for me. I accept his stupid, characteristic Arab position on Israel, but siding with the outfit that attacked Lebanon’s liberal current shows that Ibrahim is not a liberal in any meaningful sense of the word. Anyway, why he was jailed is testament to Mubarak’s vanity, viciousness and stupidity, but it doesn’t mean that Mubarak destroyed Egyptian liberalism.
The liberal current has been a dead issue in Egypt for over half a century, maybe more. If you talk to genuine Egyptian liberals, like Amr Bargisi and his colleagues at the Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth, they’ll tell you that even some of the heroes of that era, like Taha Hussein, weren’t really liberal after all. We want to believe that Mubarak destroyed liberalism because our friends from the region tell us so and it is too dark to imagine that the liberal current is dead. But it is. Mubarak would’ve had to have single-handedly revived liberalism; should he be blamed because he wasn’t able to turn around Egyptian society in a generation?
Unlike the liberal current, the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful force in Egyptian society because it represents the flower of Arab political modernity, predating the organization’s founding and going back to the Muslim reform movement, which began in Cairo. So presumably the Egyptian military has plenty of MB members and sympathizers in its ranks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a permanent bond between the two. The MB has wisely taken the side of the army at present, but that may change at any time. The army is happy to have the MB’s support, as Nasser was leading up to his coup before he got rid of them. Instead of thinking of the army and MB as ideological opposites, it is perhaps more useful to see them as brothers wrestling for the same prizes—prestige and power. We’ll see how the post-Mubarak political arena shapes their relationship.
MJT: Do you think Egypt will actually hold a free and fair election?
Lee Smith: Sure, why not? It seems that the last election on the constitutional amendments was the freest elections ever in Egypt and the turnout was large. I suspect the presidential election will be fair, free, have a big turnout and the winner will be Amr Moussa. He’s the establishment’s candidate. He was foreign minister and after that Arab League general secretary, which means he’s never wielded any real power at all. Presumably, the military likes this.
More importantly, a president will allow the army leaders to recede back into the shadows where they are much more comfortable managing their considerable business interests. This is very important because right now we have an extremely dangerous situation where the army is out front without any civilian cover to mask their misdeeds. People are angry and threatening to go to the streets again, which would entail a direct confrontation with the military. The key narrative that buoyed the January 25 uprising—e.g. the people and the army are hand in hand—would no longer be relevant, and the demonstrators would be marching against, not alongside, tanks. It’s a terrible image but this prospect was predictable.
You can imagine that during January and February the military was caught in a bind. The officers, too, were angry with Mubarak, for trying to push his son into the presidential palace, a feat that would’ve been damaging to the army’s interests. So they were not unhappy to see him go on that count. Moreover, they needed a way to clear the streets of protesters, and at a certain stage it must have seemed that getting rid of Mubarak was the only way to do it. However, the problem is that by following the wishes of the revolutionaries the military thereby gave the street de facto veto power.
It was strange to see so much of the American intelligentsia thrilled that Egyptians had taken to the streets. It is not an entirely uncommon phenomenon in Egypt—and the energy unfortunately is usually quite dark. This is what happens almost every Friday after noon prayers at places like Al Azhar, where there are big demonstrations, usually against the US and Israel. I don’t get that worked up when people around the world are burning our flag, but neither am I going to fool myself that just because those same people aren’t burning our flag when they are demonstrating that the energy is therefore wholesome and constructive. It’s the same energy—the hate people feel for us and the Israelis was turned back around on Mubarak.
I know the standard reading is that this is how it should be, that since Mubarak inspired that rage it is only right it was turned on him instead of us. But what if that rage is not political? What if its etiology, like the origins of most emotions, is not rational and there is nothing underlying it but more rage? This in effect is what Mubarak was saying when he told Christiane Amanpour that he understood Egyptians, a claim that US journalists and policymakers mocked.
So let’s look at the burning of the Coptic churches. Where does this come from? Is this also Mubarak’s fault? Is it Israel’s or Washington’s? What about the pleasure that so many Sunnis felt when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was slaughtering Shia in Iraq? Where do the origins of this emotion come from? What I’m saying is that we are talking about a political culture very different from ours, and the fact that people went to the streets was not necessarily representative of a revolution of emotions, but may have simply been a gesture that issued from the same political culture that all too often celebrates or justifies political murder. We were rightly happy to see the young middle-classes on the streets of Egyptian cities, the social media networkers, the new face of the Arab public—but ask them what they think of Hamas and Hezbollah, what they think of resistance? If they’re not the ones passing out baklava when a suicide bomber kills Israelis, I suspect that many of them will still justify it as resistance. I’d like someone to ask Wael Ghonim, the famous Google executive, what he thinks about resistance.
Anyway, it’s not just Egypt we’re talking about here—when people go to the streets it’s a dangerous thing for everyone involved. And that’s because people usually go to the streets for bad reasons, like shedding blood, either their own or someone else’s. In our reporting and understanding of events in Egypt, it’s almost like Americans forgot the difference between our revolution and France’s, a carnival of bloodshed. Egypt’s uprising was of course nowhere nearly as violent as France’s, but we already see how the so-called revolutionary committees are demanding the heads of scapegoats, most notably the Mubarak family itself, which the military will almost inevitably feed them. So what happens when they run out of the late regime’s blood? Whose blood then do they sacrifice to the revolutionaries? Will the army turn on the revolutionaries? Or will there be a military coup, with younger officers rising up to depose their elders? This is not only what happened with Nasser’s Free Officer’s revolution, but also what the Islamic Jihad/al-Gama’a al-Islameya cell tried to pull off with the murder of Sadat. It was a military operation run by junior officers, like Khaled al-Islambouli, Sadat’s assassin.
These scenarios are a result of Mubarak’s having been toppled in the way he was. Had he been allowed to leave after elections and overseeing a transition, as he promised, things might look very different now. The Obama administration could’ve held him to his promise, and pocketed that as a victory for US diplomacy, since this is precisely what the State Department had sought from Mubarak for some time—a successor named to replace him, and a timeline for his exit. Instead, the White House sided with the protesters and demanded he step down; now the revolutionaries have a veto over the political system by virtue of the fact that they can simply go to the street and cause mayhem. So instead of a transition to democracy, we have the beginnings of a tyranny of a minority, a naïve minority at that which does not understand how its interests may eventually come to heads with the country’s more powerful forces, its armed forces.
MJT: What about Mubarak’s old supporters? They’re not going away just because their party has been disbanded, and they’re quite numerous, actually, or at least they were. What are they up to right now, and what might we expect from them in the future?
Lee Smith: Which old supporters do you mean? The NDP? The so-called pro-Mubarak thugs? His sons? He had very few supporters as such. Rather, he was enthroned atop a large pyramid of political interests, some of them competing, even within the NDP. The foundation of that pyramid is the Egyptian army. Mubarak was simply the civilian face of the same military regime that has ruled Egypt for almost sixty years, the Free Officers regime. And remember that Nasser’s July 1952 revolution, which was actually just a coup, toppled King Farouk, the last ruler of a family dynasty that started with Mohammed Ali, an Albanian officer who came to rule Egypt after Napoleon’s conquest. Egyptian history, even long before the Islamic conquest of the country by one of the prophet of Islam’s generals, dating back to Alexander the Great and before him the pharaohs, shows that the country is ruled by a military regime more often than it is not. It is very difficult to imagine how that is going to change anytime soon.
The irony is that it seems the best chance the Egyptians have had in recent memory for civilian rule was with Gamal Mubarak. Obviously that succession presented problems of its own, but Gamal was not a part of the military establishment—that’s of course why the military was happy to let the revolutionaries get rid of him. In any case, the Egyptian army constituted the core of Mubarak’s real political support, but when he no longer served the military’s interests, they let him go.
Some people when they say Mubarak supporters mean those folks who took to the streets during the revolution and were labeled pro-Mubarak thugs, etc. This was largely a fiction put forth by the revolutionaries and then retailed by the Western press. The notion that there was some command and control mechanism that issued orders from on top to direct the actions of all those below must strike even the most casual tourist to Egypt as counterintuitive, to say the least. Egypt is a country where chaos and bureaucratic stasis have comfortably commingled for millennia; no one, not even a pharaoh, is capable of giving an order that millions of Egyptians will easily or willingly follow.
The so-called pro-Mubarak thugs were largely the same pro-democracy demonstrators who had brawled with the police the first few nights of the uprising. They turned on the protesters at Tahrir because the demonstrations had brought the economy to a standstill. Many Egyptians live hand to mouth as day laborers, including those on the margins of the tourism industry, and with the country in turmoil they could not put food on the table. They went to clear the streets so things could get back to normal and they could earn a living. In other words, when they turned on the protesters they were not pro-Mubarak but anti-revolutionary. They wanted a return to the status quo, which appears to be the majority opinion in Egypt, and that is why the constitutional referendum was passed by more than three-quarters of the electorate. They didn’t want to wait to give the revolutionaries time to start political parties and learn how to do grassroots politics; they wanted to get back to their lives—even, or especially, if that means winding up with a known quantity at the helm like Amr Moussa, someone not at all too different from Mubarak.
MJT: Will Egypt go to war with Israel?
Lee Smith: The rational calculation is that Cairo understands it would lose that war as well as the $2 billion dollars in US aid. The problem is that very little we have seen in Egypt over the last six months is based on rational self-interest. Otherwise, its middle class youth would not have waged a revolution against a regime that raised their standard of living. Rational is all the direct foreign investment that left Egypt after the revolution and will stay away; rational are the tourists who will forgo visiting the pyramids and the sphinx as Egyptians fill their streets with the blood of Copts, Muslims and members of the former regime.
But human beings are not mostly rational, and this includes American policymakers. In Washington people argue that even if the Egyptians want to go war they can’t because all of their weaponry and equipment depends on US-training and maintenance, and how is Egypt going to make war with an army that can’t exist without American support? Ok sure, if Cairo makes war, Americans won’t be on the ground servicing Egyptian tanks as they cross the Sinai; big deal.
Let’s look at Lebanon, where the US funds and trains the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is effectively controlled by Hezbollah’s intelligence apparatus—Lebanese sources explain that among other things LAF units on the Israeli border are cleared by Hezbollah. And yet the idea behind our support is to strengthen the LAF so that it can one day take over from Hezbollah, or even disarm it, and yet the political reality makes this unlikely.
It seems that the current head of the LAF is positioning himself to be the next president of Lebanon, just like the last two heads of the army who became heads of state. So if leadership of the army is a political stepping-stone then no one is ever going to take any political risks by confronting the power on the ground in Lebanon, Hezbollah. And yet the US keeps pouring money into an army controlled by an Iranian asset that has the blood of hundreds of Americans on its hands. So under what circumstances is Washington going to turn around on an Egypt policy of more than two decades and stop supporting the military? It’s not; Washington will keep giving the army money and support no matter what signs augur it should do otherwise. In the end, where policymakers believe that the Egyptians can’t go to war with Israel with an American-made army, the obverse is equally or more true: Cairo has an army that the Americans have built and serviced for over twenty years that it can use to make war on Israel.
What determines decisions then are not necessarily rational calculations based on evidence and historical precedence—like who would win a war between Egypt and Israel—but various dynamics that may have nothing to do with reason. For Egyptian decision-makers—and for the foreseeable future that means the army—the dynamics are local, regional and international.
Arguably, Egyptian leaders have never believed they were capable of defeating Israel in the particular wars they chose to fight. In 1948, Egypt went to war against Israel not because King Farouk wanted to, but because he needed to respond to domestic and regional rivals. Regarding the former, the Muslim Brotherhood was clamoring for war against the Zionists; as for the latter, Farouk feared that if the Arabs defeated the Jews, King Abdullah of what was then called Transjordan might walk away with too big a piece of the pie. That is to say, it was an intra-Arab war as much as it was a war against Israel. In 1967, there is no doubt that Nasser wanted to fight Israel and cleared the path to war, not only through his rhetoric, but also by closing the Straits of Tiran and demanding UN troops leave the Sinai. Still, with so many of his forces in Yemen at the time, it’s not clear Nasser really thought he could win at that moment. A number of historians point to the dubious intelligence the Soviets supplied Nasser and argue that Moscow pushed him to war for reasons of its own. In 1973, Sadat didn’t need to defeat Israel, but only go far enough to restore Egyptian pride so that he could take the country out of the Soviet camp and align with the US. Even then, it was only Washington that saved Sadat when the Israelis were within 60 miles of Cairo.
It is likely that at present Egyptian officials are not looking to wipe Israel off the map, at least for now, but the dynamics might lead to conflict. So, what are the dynamics today? We’ve already discussed Egypt’s fund-raising drive in the international arena, that Egypt needs money and must continue to present an unstable country that is apt to spin out of control unless it gets the money it requires. That instability, or distancing itself from the American camp by warming toward Iran and Hamas, may well provoke incidents apt to escalate.
As far as the domestic arena goes, the street, as we’ve noted, now has a political voice, and the only way to appeal to that corner of the population is through populism. If during the uprising American journalists and policymakers were quick to agree with the revolutionaries by blaming Mubarak for everything wrong with Egypt, they ignored the familiar pattern behind this line of thinking. Where Egyptian ideologues typically fault the US and Israel for all of Egypt’s woes—remember the Egyptian official who blamed the Mossad for the shark attacks in the Sinai?—during the uprising it was all about the evil of Mubarak. As soon as the Mubaraks have been fed to the mobs, then we’re headed back to business as usual—and that means Israel and the US are the sources of all evil. The difference between anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment before and after the fall of Mubarak is that now when the street makes noise, decision makers will have to take it seriously, because Mubarak didn’t and look where he wound up.
That leaves the regional arena. While the intra-Arab dynamics are less intense than they were in ’48, and there is no superpower struggle in the Middle East as there was in ’67 and ’73, the region is nonetheless very volatile, thanks largely to Iran. Mubarak despised the Islamic Republic, but that’s not how Egypt’s new rulers see it; they’re set on renewing diplomatic relations with Tehran, which means the Iranians will present the Egyptians with opportunities for both collaboration and perhaps more dangerously competition. In the Middle East, competition between regimes usually takes place over Israel—i.e., who is more anti-Israeli, who is willing to really take it to the Zionist interlopers rather than merely badmouth them? For instance, the fact that Hezbollah has really fought Israel and is poised for another round is central to its prestige. And providing Hezbollah with key support, as well as weapons, went a long way toward burnishing Bashar al-Assad’s regional image. So now with an Egyptian government that bears none of the hostility toward Hamas that the Mubarak government did, how do they handle the Palestinian resistance? Do they support it, or even serve as a supply line, as Syria does with Hezbollah?
There are lots of ways that this can get out of hand, which is why I tend to dismiss the idea that all these decisions will be made with rational calculations foremost in the minds of Egyptian officials. They won’t be. You can bet Israelis are worried about it, even if their number one priority is still Iran; but 83 million people on your border accustomed to thinking of you as the enemy is a serious concern. American policymakers, analysts and journalists have treated this issue rather too casually.
MJT: How will this affect the US?
Lee Smith: There is little that the Obama administration, or anyone, can do at this point. Washington was effectively out of the picture the minute Obama called for Mubarak to step down. People say there was nothing Obama could’ve done to save Mubarak, so he just accepted reality. But Obama didn’t accept reality when he went to Cairo to make a speech in June 2009, did he? The reality is that American diplomacy, policy and strategy is ordered in terms of states, not amorphous blocs of people according to how they define their religious beliefs. But Obama spoke about the “Muslim world” and effectively undermined an American ally in his own capital: Mubarak was a bystander in Cairo that June morning and not the leader of an influential Arab state allied with Washington, because in Obama’s reckoning there were no states as such, only the Muslim world
When protesters took to the streets in January, Obama told aides he didn’t see how he couldn’t take their side after he’d encouraged their aspirations in the Cairo speech. The president had to give his Cairo speech, he had to side with the revolutionaries, but given the opportunity to say something when Mubarak was on the ropes, hey, what could he do? He was just dealing with reality. Obama could’ve very easily said to the protesters, “the Egyptian president has promised to step down after elections next fall and lead the way toward a democratic transition, and I urge you to work with him.” I am sure that seems fanciful to many, but if that treatment was good enough for Bashar al-Assad, why not for Mubarak as well? Even as Assad surrounds Syrian towns with tanks and fired on his own people, the White House extends him the courtesy of simply stating that we mean to hold him to his promise of reform. Assad, a US adversary who helped kill our troops in Iraq, is treated with kid gloves because the administration still wants to wedge him away from Iran and start up Syria-Israeli negotiations, but Mubarak, a US ally who is dead set against Iranian influence in the region and has kept the peace treaty with Jerusalem for three decades, gets the bum’s rush.
But the issue isn’t just sticking up for a US ally, it’s also, or primarily about Egypt. Once Mubarak stepped down democratic reform was off the table, at least in the near future—not because of the Muslim Brotherhood, not even because of the army, but because the street was given veto power. How was this going to lead to democratic reform? It was going to lead to more populism. The revolutionaries lost the referendum by more than 75% of the vote, and so counter to their claims, they don’t speak for all of Egypt. But what do they care? The revolutionaries have more political power staying in Tahrir Square and making demands on the army than they could ever project from the halls of parliament. So now you have the revolutionaries pitted against the rest of Egypt, including the army, and there’s nothing American officials can do about it.
If Mubarak were still around, with us still holding his feet to the fire to make sure he reforms then leaves, things might be different. Mubarak was not Saddam, he was not Assad; nor was his Egypt like those two Arab states. Perhaps against Mubarak’s will, or maybe even without his knowing it, his son Gamal’s technocrats really were reforming the economy. Since the 2004 economic reforms, Egypt won consistently high marks from the World Bank and IMF while the economy was growing at an average rate of 7 percent. Sure, Gamal’s gang was corrupt, but corruption is systemic in Egypt. If we want to toss out Washington’s benchmarks for reform, then fine, but what replaces them? From now on, the new standards for reform will be determined by how many protesters social media activists can put out into the streets?
So it wasn’t just Mubarak that the administration tossed under the bus, but also the longstanding US policy of pushing for reform in the Arab world. What conclusion can Arab officials draw from Mubarak’s fall? Of course most of these people have no interest in reform, and the only reason they do it is because we compel them; but now we don’t even have any leverage. We have to give Egypt money without conditions because otherwise the country will starve and fall to pieces. And even when things stabilize we won’t have any leverage because everyone will understand what happened to Mubarak. Arab rulers all know that no matter how well you reform, no matter what numbers you put up, the Americans aren’t actually paying attention. So why reform in the first place if it only leads to you being shoved out while the Americans sit by cheering on the mob?
Arab reform is another casualty of the Arab Spring, but no one in Washington has done the autopsy yet. Once they do, they’ll need to figure out if there’s any way to revive or refashion our policies pushing for reform. In the meantime, it’s bad news for genuine Arab liberals and anyone else in the region who is hoping for reform.
The verdict is still out, and I hope I’m proven very wrong, but until then I’ll stick with my initial assessment—the Egyptian revolution is going to spell trouble for the US, Israel, the Arabs, and most importantly, for Egypt itself.
Lee Smith is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. He is a former resident of Beirut and Cairo.