Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt: My Job Is To Analyze, Not Celebrate

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By Barry Rubin

I hate to say this but please allow me to do my job and try to be a useful observer of these historic events. My position from the beginning has been to make a distinction between Mubarak's fall--which doesn't matter--and the total fall of the regime with its being replaced by something totally different and unknown.

Now think about this: Millions of Egyptians hated the regime. So the regime blamed everything on Mubarak. Mubarak resigns. Now everyone loves the regime. For sixty years, Egypt has gone through variations but nothing essential has changed.

Will there be free elections and the choice of a government that will change everything? We will see but it hasn't happened yet.

But why not have a more open system? What's critical is that no one touches the army's privileges, money, and business enterprises plus doesn't go after the rich establishment. Who needs to repress people if they aren't causing you any trouble?

We are not well served if everyone does nothing but celebrate the fall of a dictatorship. It is important to ask questions and give warnings. History does not end today, no more than it ended in Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959, or Iran in 1979. Those were all negative examples. There are also positive ones: in South Korea, Central Europe, and Latin America.

A central element in determining whether the celebrations continue is whether there is a material base for stability and continuing democracy. Does Egypt have that basis, being in an unstable region, with a large Islamist movement, a proportionately tiny middle class, and lacking the resources for raising living standards higher?

That's hard to see. Since I live a little over one hour's drive from the Egyptian border, nobody would benefit more than me from a moderate, stable, democratic Egypt. I have friends there who are celebrating today and many friends among Arab reformers who are celebrating because they hope it means something better for their countries.

But if I just join everyone else in just saying how great everything is, there would be no point in your reading this article and I would not be doing my job.

Discussions of Egypt are at present dominated by people who don't know much about Egypt and who make the most elementary errors. And that applies both to the celebrators and those who are saying that this is bad.

When people make the most basic factual mistakes over and over about Egyptian history and the political scene there, one has reason to doubt what they are saying.

The way it is being portrayed, 30 years ago an evil dictator named Husni Mubarak seized power in Egypt--some wrongly think with U.S. help--and repressed the people until this week. In fact, the military--the same military in charge at this moment--has ruled Egypt for 60 years. This was not a one-man dictatorship. Egypt is not a small Latin American country. Mubarak was more chairman of the board than emperor.

Today, the dominant narrative is that Egypt was going on as a nice democratic country, then suddenly this money-hungry monster seized power. But now this one bad man has left and so things can get back to normal. Indeed, though, when Mubarak came to power Egypt had already gone through thirty years of dictatorship. And before that, there was overwhelming dissatisfaction with the multi-party democratic system under the monarchy. The end of democracy was celebrated with celebrations in 1952 as big as the ones we're seeing now.

I just heard a report from an American radio reporter claiming that the only reason Mubarak stayed in power so long is because the United States backed him, as if the army and elite wasn't running the country the entire time. For Egypt's ruling circles blaming everything on Mubarak is a sensible strategy. From this point on, it does make sense for U.S. policy to support the new government, which President Barack Obama is going to do. The question is what the United States will ask of the new government and how to judge it.

But will the establishment view itself as needing to keep the Americans happy--money and weapons--or will it think that to preserve its wealth and power it needs to ride a radical nationalist (or even, further in the future) Islamist wave to popularity?

We should remember that as of this moment the regime is still in power, merely having shed its leader. The regime would have been happy to get rid of Mubarak a couple of years ago, not because he was oppressive but because he was getting too old and trying to foist his son on them.

In a sense, the regime has pulled off one of the greatest public relations' operations in history. By getting rid of one man is had transformed itself from being incredibly unpopular to wildly popular. If the regime can hold on--and the army isn't going to give up easily--the results might not be so bad as long as the army isn't radicalized. And by radicalized I don't mean Islamized but moving to a radical nationalist position. 

During its 60 years in power the regime has gone through different phases but it has responded to conditions. When, in the 1970s, for example, President Anwar al-Sadat faced a leftist faction within his regime, he allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to reemerge as a counterweight. Sadat was assassinated by Islamists--though not by Muslim Brotherhood members--and this gave Mubarak (who was sitting next to him) the feeling that Islamism might just be a problem.

So the question is this: are we at the end of a 60-year-long period of rule by a regime based on the military or are the names merely changing?

There has been much talk about how much money Mubarak stole, yet that is only a small portion of what military officers have made through various business and other activities. Would any government dare investigate their corruption? Of course not.

Or consider the issue of repression. Arguably, the Egyptian regime had become less repressive in many respects over the years but the degree of repression corresponded with the perception of threat. A handful of free-thinking bloggers were rounded up and beaten up; hundreds and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood cadre have faced the same fate. The Islamist threat is not a myth.

Another point to keep in mind is that Egypt is not comprised only of the Muslim Brotherhood and moderate democrats. A key question is whether radical nationalists will emerge as a force also. This has, after all, been the dominant ideology in Egypt for a long time.

Remember the Muslim Brotherhood will not run a presidential candidate. They will support ElBaradei. So many will say during and after a presidential elections that this proves the Brotherhood is moderate and harmless. That is, of course, its strategy.

There was a time when Egypt was a democratic country, from the 1920s until 1952, under the monarchy, there were elections. And in 1952 when the monarchy was overthrow and multi-party democracy was ended, the Egyptian people were just as joyous as they are today. The old system was seen as a failure: deadlocked, corrupt, too pro-Western, unable to destroy Israel, and incapable of bringing rapid development to higher living standards.

A word about foreign policy, of which I will have more to say in the coming days. The United States has just lost Egypt as an asset in confronting Iran and its nuclear program. Would ElBaradei, a man who as arms' inspecting chief said it wasn't clear that Tehran was even trying to get nuclear weapons, support sanctions against Iran?

Will the new Egypt continue sanctions against Hamas? The army might want this but it is hard to believe that the Egypt-Gaza border remains closed. If it does, you will know that the army is supervising things. But I predict another joyous celebration as Egyptians and Gazans hug each other followed by the flow of weapons across the border. This would also open Egypt to increasing Islamist subversion.

The best that can be expected would be that Egypt might move from a "pro-U.S." to a "neutral" position in the region. The theory is that this will be counterbalanced by democratic upheavals elsewhere. Yet unless these take place in Iran, Syria, and Gaza that will not benefit U.S. interests.

So will a democratic system work this time in making life in Egypt better and helping to stabilize the Middle East? Perhaps. Egypt has changed, yet not all the changes are on the positive side. We must, then, keep an open mind and watch developments.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: His blog, Rubin Reports,

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