Egypt is on the brink. President Hosni Mubarak has already declared he
wont seek reelection. By the time you read this the country may have
fallen into complete chaos or the military and police may have
ruthlessly cracked down on the demonstrators or some sort of
middle-ground sanity might have started to prevail.
The potential for catastrophe is very real. The Obama administration
is diplomatically dancing on the edge of a sword.
We cannot, without oozing hypocrisy, fail to support people protesting
for more freedom.
Mubarak was handed extraordinary powers when he succeeded Anwar Sadat,
an overreaction to Sadats assassination. Since then, Egypt has
increasingly become a place of governmental intolerance, increasing
restrictions on personal freedom, political oppression and repression
and an officialdom wallowing in corruption. Unemployment is at 20% and
rising, especially among young people, and the cost of living has
increased dramatically in the last decade. In a country in which
more than half the population is under 30 that means those most likely
to be tempted by overtures from extremists are the same group being
most impacted by their crummy economy.
At the same time, Mubarak has been a significant U.S. ally on more
than one level. His government has been somewhat successful at
keeping terrorists at bay. He has been willing, for the most part, to
honor agreements with Israel that have made the region safer.
So were in a bit of a pickle. Mubarak has become the kind of leader
at the head of the kind of government we claim the world would be
better without. But hes been a friend.
The problem here, of course, is weve no clue how this might all end.
And we dont really have any way of influencing the outcome other than
with more of the aid we already provide.
The current wave of demonstrations is unique in the history of the
Middle East. It started when a street vendor in Tunisia, fed up with
his government after a very bad day, set himself on fire and the video
made it onto the internet. Within a couple of weeks, the long-time
president of Tunisia had stolen what he apparently believed was his
rightful share of the state treasury and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Yemen was next. Egypt followed closely thereafter. King Abdullah II
of Jordan, one of the very few rational leaders in the entire region,
quickly saw the storm of unrest heading his way, dismissed his entire
cabinet and is starting over, including the writing of a new
constitution giving more freedom and a louder voice to Jordanians.
Unfortunately, the king is an exception. The opportunity is now
especially ripe for the extremists in the region to claim at least a
small measure, and possibly a very large measure, of additional power,
legitimately or not. It was discouraging that 30 members of the
Muslim Brotherhood, an especially noxious and dangerous terrorist
group, broke out, or were broken out, of prison during the Egyptian
And there is real danger if the Egyptian military, or a part of it,
falls sway to the ministrations of radical Islamists. Egypt has the
7th largest military in world, with more than a million citizens in
active service or paramilitary service. The United States gives them
more than $1.5 billion annually and they have lots of nifty and
destructive toys, including more than 1,200 combat aircraft and
thousands of ground-based weapons systems.
It isnt the least bit helpful that our track record includes
supporting all manner of miscreants in the Middle East. During the
Cold War we claimed the area was strategically critical so we propped
up any dictator who gave us a warm smile and a firm handshake. Among
the lot were some of the most oppressive regimes on the planet,
including those led by the Shah of Iran and the Saudi royal family.
Even when we help fund and arm dissidents, this part of the world does
not necessarily choose to govern they way we would like. Our previous
experience in Afghanistan is instructive. We helped the Afghanis who
called themselves the mujahideen as early as the 1970s when they first
openly opposed the Soviet-backed Afghan government. When the Soviets
invaded, we increased aid to include weapons and money. Our guys
won, the Soviets left and began their journey into oblivion. But
Afghanistan devolved into civil war and the winners, many of the same
mujahideen we had supported, became the Taliban.
It should give us some pause for concern that much of what the
protestors now want to be free of are policies enacted by governments
weve openly supported with financial and military aid and tacitly
supported by looking the other way at incredible human rights abuses.
That they see us as part of the problem is not an encouraging sign.
Whether or not this movement spreads is the next great question. The
region is seething, the result of decades of oppressive and repressive
regimes and bloated monarchies incapable of real governance. Should
the dominoes begin to fall it is unlikely the current crop of leaders
will be much missed.
Unless, of course, their replacements are worse.