Devil’s Choices in Egypt

As unrest spreads in major Egyptian urban areas, the question of what this means for the United States arises, since Egypt has been as reliable a partner as the United States (and Israel) have had in the Middle East for the last 30 years or more during which Hosni Mubarak has been the “duly elected” President of Egypt. Widely publicized demonstrations are now in their fourth day, the police have proven inadequate to do much about them and have apparently largely quit trying, and quelling–or at least managing–the chaos has fallen on the Egyptian Army, in which the United States has a huge financial investment.

So far, the Army has acted with considerable restraint, but one is not quite sure why. They have tried to break up demonstrations, but not with great force or violence, and there are increasing reports of collaboration between demonstrators and soldiers. If the Mubarak government has been ordering the military to clamp down (and there is no conclusive publicly available evidence one way or the other on this subject), they have apparently ignored or resisted it. If they have been ordered to show restraint, they have largely succeeded. Since much of Mubarak’s claim to power has rested on his symbiotic relationship with the military, what we are now seeing may be an expression of the Army’s flagging loyalty to the 82-year-old leader. Certainly, it is known that the Army is unenthusiastic about Mubarak’s dream of passing along power to his son Gamal, whom the military apparently disrespects. It also seems plausible that they oppose another six-year term for Mubarak following elections later this year (Mubarak has been in power since 1981, and there are no terms limits on the President of Egypt).

Meanwhile, the protests continue to grow, fueled by the social media–Twitter, Facebook, etc.–that the government appears to be trying to silence, but with less than total success. The scenes being beamed more or less constantly on CNN look a lot like Tehran a years or so ago and certainly like Tunisia last week, and one cannot help but speculate where all this may be headed.

No one seems to know with any certainty. Although all analogies are imperfect, one cannot avoid being drawn to comparisons between what is happening in Egypt and the changes in Eastern Europe that began in 1989. In both cases, the public turned on long-serving authoritarian governments that had heretofore hidden their peoples’ displeasure with them behind a veil of repression, and once that veil was lifted, the antipathy, disregard, even disdain the people held could not be contained. One can only conjure memories of the looks on the faces of fallen communist leaders as they lost power across Eastern Europe: utter disbelief that their former subjects hated them as much as they obviously did. Is some of that what we are seeing in Egypt today? If it succeeds, will it spread, as it did in formerly communist Europe?

The experts are divided, as they were in 1989. Processes of change can, after all, have three long-term outcomes, depending on one’s perspective: things can get better, they can get worse, or they can remain the same. For the latter to be the case, the uprisings would have to fail, leaving Mubarak in power (although possibly convinced not to run again later this year and having abandoned his dreams of nepotism); that victory for the status quo) is certainly what happened in Iran. Since Mubarak has been a long and loyal partner in the region, that would seem a reasonable hope for the United States, but it is really only an interim solution that simply puts off the question of “what after Mubarak?” the demonstrators are raising. It also leaves the other prospects: things could get better, and things could get worse.

Here is where the United States has a devil’s choice before it. Does the United States, more fearful than hopeful of the outcomes of change, come down for “law and order” and back those who want to avoid or minimize change? Or does it embrace the process of change and try to ride its crest, hoping the result will be a new government in Egypt that appreciates the Americans having chosen their side of future Egyptian history?

There is, of course, a clearly preferential outcome here, which is that a more democratic, progressive, but non-Islamist and thus pro-American government will emerge from this process, and one that appreciates what the United States has done to help the transition from Mubarak-era repression and economic deprivation (per capita GDP in Egypt is 137th in the world, according to CIA figures for 2010). Sounds and would be great, but is that the outcome that change will produce?

No one, of course, seems to know, and there is a flip side to optimism: in this case, Mubarak falling and being replaced by a radical, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated, Islamist theocracy on the Iranian model. Egypt, of course, is not Iran (its Muslim population is virtually all Sunni rather than Shiite, for instance), and it has a large, westernized middle class and elite. But strange things can happen when you roll the dice, which supporting the ongoing process effectively entails. As one rock-an-roll song aptly puts it, “You may be wrong, but you may be right!” with any prediction you make.

So what’s the United States to do? The choices are all potentially bad: devil’s choices. If we back our long-time ally, we send a positive message to other global friends that we are steadfast. Some of those friends, however, may not deserve our fidelity, and we also send a message to those who seek change: don’t count on Uncle Sam. The risk of backing Mubarak is ending up on the wrong side of Egyptian history, and the Egyptians will remember. On the other hand, embracing change has perils: if Mubarak goes, who will follow? Other than his son, Mubarak has left no obvious replacements being groomed, the state has suppressed many of those who might be leaders, and Mubarak has not allowed political alternatives to whom one might turn. Uncertainty is thus maximized, and we roll the dice about the outcome if we embrace the current popular mood. Will the roll produce a “lucky seven” or “snake eyes”? The only way to know is roll them and hope for the best. Governments typically want something more concrete than that.

So here we stand on what may be a cusp of history. The Egyptian people are clearly saying that they do not like the status quo and that as its symbol, Mubarak needs to go. Probably the worst outcome would be for all this to appear to blow over, leaving Mubarak to run for and win another “free” election (he got 88.6 percent of the vote in 2005) with American support, since that would place us on the side of reaction, and after Mubarak finally parts the scene, the Egyptians will remember. Or we can roll the dice and hope for the best from a change process we do  not yet understand (if anyone does). The result could be very good, or it could be very bad. But then, the nature 0f devil’s choices is that they afre, or can be, between unpleasant alternatives.

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2 Responses to “Devil’s Choices in Egypt”

  1. william bilek, m.d. Says:

    The gist of this posting seems to be that “nobody knows nothin'”. While that is undoubtedly true, more disturbing, and to the point, is that “nobody knew nothin’ before, either”. Why is it that all the world’s intelligence agencies didn’t see this coming? Why are we always REacting, instead of PROacting? Oh well, water under the bridge.

    The bast case scenario would be that the U.S. encourages Mubarak to work with the armed forces to immediately calm the situation and get control, at the same time announcing the new government, the holding of the already scheduled elections, under international supervision; and that he, Mubarak, would not run again.

    This is the first real revolution in the Arab world. But there have been revolutions before. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution. Each of those was followed by a brief moment of democratic rule, quickly overshadowed, and then overthrown by the dark forces of despotism of Robespierre, the Bolsheviks, and Khomeini. It is difficult not to fear, and foresee, the same train of events this time, with the Arabs.

    Another interesting point is that all the unrest, all the seething mobs, all the sources of complaints, had nothing to do with the Arab-Palestinian conflict, which many have touted as central to the instability of the M.E. Does anyone really believe that if Abbas had accepted Olmert’s offer in 2008, and a peace treaty had been signed between Israel and the Palestinians, that Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia would not have set himself on fire, that the people of Egypt would not be in the streets of Cairo today demanding freedom, jobs, choice?

    And, as far as peace treaties are concerned, the leak of the “Palestine Papers” clearly shows that any peace treaty that might be agreed with the Palestinian leadership does not have the support of the Palestinian people. Concessions on land, refugees, Jerusalem, would have been pocketed, but the Israelis would be left holding an empty bag, with the passing of Abbas and Fayyad. Similarly, the cold peace that Israel had for 30 years was not with the Egyptian people, but with Sadat, and then Mubarak. With Mubarak’s departure, there is a very high likelihood that the peace will die with him. When the next government of Egypt starts sending troops and tanks into the Sinai, the Israelis will be left holding a worthless piece of paper; the Egyptians will hold the vast expanses of Sinai, the oil wells, the former settlements.

    The outlook isn indeed bleak.

  2. Phillip E. Myers Says:

    Why this event waiting to be an event is still relatively peaceful is beyond me. Robespierre has apparently not yet appeared. However, he could at any time as this event winds on and reason begins to take a back seat.

    I am also wondering what “the peoples'” demands for reform are: at least I have not heard anything clear through the media. What tenets of reforms is this so-called “movement” grounded on? How can the endeavor continue without the mix of idealism (revolutionary aims) and realism which seems to be prevalent thus far. The U.S. has got to be very careful in what it says, and patient maximally or it might get into the position of a lone duck that Britain fell into in the Suez Crisis of the 1950’s. Having said that, I agree; the outlook is indeed bleak. It seems to be a “revolution” without the principles or gumption to be a revolution.

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