February 3, 2011

Democracy Coming to Egypt? The Middle East? We Think Not

SHARM EL SHEIKH/EGYPT, 18MAY08 - Muhammad Hosn...
The world is watching as massive numbers of protesters take to the streets to demand that Hosni Mubarak relinquish his 30 year grip on dictatorial power in Egypt.  Inspired by similar demands in Tunisia,   Egyptians have taken to the streets in the most serious and real challenge to the regime in Egypt in many years.

The President takes massive heat just for getting out of bed.  Naturally his response to the Egyptian protesters has been criticized as tepid, inept and out of step with our American ideas of democracy.  His failure to call for Mubarak to step down and full throatedly support the protesters has been labeled a weak and ineffectual championing of democracy, exposing the US to ridicule as hypocrites, crowing about our democratic ways whilst supporting autocratic regimes in the Middle East because it suits our short term geopolitical objectives.

Ralph Peters lays this charge on the President, going so far as to label him a threat to US security:

Finally, we come to the Obama administration’s belated, inadequate and limp-wristed response to the crisis in Egypt. President Obama wants to play the community organizer, bringing the parties in conflict together to find middle ground. But there is no middle ground. In situations like this, you pick a side. Period. Obama’s lukewarm support for democracy and human rights is undercut by his continued insistence that the Mubarak government can reform. .....
A president who just hopes crucial strategic problems will go away is a greater threat to our security than the Muslim Brotherhood: Vanity and vacillation are no substitute for courage, vision and common sense.

In a crisis only nine days old, one in which the outcome is far from certain and is not particularly subject to US influence, I think Peters charge is as ridiculous as the pundits he mocks for hand wringing about the Muslim Brotherhood's possible influence in a post Mubarak Egypt.

Peters goes on and on about how the inexorable tide of history is slowly but surely sweeping away the dictators in the Middle East and we'd better get on the right side of history. He points out how the military is acting as the protector of a non radicalized Egypt.  Thats a persuasive argument, but its still a bit of a romanticized one that I'm not entirely sure is accurate.

The Obama administration's hesitant and evolving policy is not all that hard to understand given the changing nature of facts on the ground.
I'm no Egypt expert, but here's what I see playing out:

Mubarak is yielding to pressure and has announced he will not run for reelection and will step down in September.  I don't take him at his word, this is all under duress.  That move buys him time.  He appoints his security chief as Vice President.  He's maintaining control on the transition.  And while he may not run, that does not mean his son or someone else in his orbit wont' run.  Meanwhile, police have redeployed and the Army has publicly called for people to leave the streets and taken a non interventionist posture as pro-Mubarak groups begin clashing with the anti-Mubarak forces.  While many have hailed the Army's actions thus far, lets not forget that the Army has supported Mubarak for the past 30 years in power and that the Army as an institution is a participant in the largess of the status qou in Egypt.  The Army leadership controls large chunks of the economy and has a big monetary stake.  They are one set of power players in Egypt, power they will try to protect.  The other sectors of Egyptian society that have a stake in the current system are also going to jockey for position in a potentially post Mubarak society where they may have to share more power.  Thats all going on right now. 

On the other side, you have opposition groups with different ideas united by only one: Mubarak must go.  After that, they are not on the same page and are merely uniting around El Baredi in a coalition of convenience enabled by the fact that El Baredi has no independent power base of his own amongst the people that might threaten their own. His convenient weakness as a leader masks the lack of cohesion amongst the opposition groups on a new vision for Egypt.  Thats a leadership vacumn, which Mubarak will attempt to exploit.

Its becoming increasingly clear that the Army may be throwing its lot in with Mubarak, which is no surprise considering with Mubarak is where they have been until now. The government is beginning to round up and arrest activists
Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on Al-Musriyya state TV and blamed foreign operatives for the unrest.  These are the moves of a regime that is digging in.  Mubarak will use the time between now and September for reprisals and suppression of the leaders of the protests and engineer a rationale for himself to stay.

So, the rise of anything we in the West might call real democracy is still quite a long ways off and there is yet nothing to really indicate at this point that Mubarak won't maintain a hold on significant levers of power in Egypt 6 months or a year from now.  US policy has had us working with autocratic leaders for decades and they are all watching to see what Obama does.  Explicit calls to remove Mubarak are fraught with peril, as is any decision to walk a fine line of support for the protesters and easing Mubarak out.  We fork over $1.4 billion+ in military aid to support a cold peace between Egypt and Israel.  Is the President supposed to upset the underpinnings of US middle east strategy by impetuously trumpeting for democracy to triumph based on nine days of impressive demonstrations the ultimate outcome of which is still far from certain?
An outcome which he can't actually control and can only influence in indirect ways with no reasonable certainty of whether his actions actually advance US interests?

No, I'm sorry, but the dreams of the Muslim street finally rising up in an unstoppable wave of democracy across the Middle East is just that, a dream. The power centers that stand behind the currently in place regimes of the middle east are simply not so easily dismantled. 

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