Egypt is the largest Arab country and the geographic center of the Arab world; culturally, politically and religiously. Egypt remains massively important as a political keystone for regional stability; now Tahrir Square has become the epicenter of a revolt of expectations which may redefine the modern Middle East.
During his thirty years in power, Hosni Mubarek despite his political autocracy, has provided a level of stability and peace unknown in the country’s tumultuous post WWII history. Perhaps most importantly he has maintained peace and friendship with Israel (a country which Egypt fought three disastrous wars in a 25 year period,) has been a close supporter of the U.S. war on terrorism, sent troops to help the U.S. in the first Iraq war, and aligned Egypt’s powerful diplomatic voice against Iran’s nuclear program.
He has equally enforced a secular Muslim society as an alternative to radical Islamic fundamentalism and protected the country’s Coptic Christian minority against growing attacks.
Just months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, echoing U.S. policy of the past decades, was repeating that Egypt stood as a force for stability. Now the same American government, which was Cairo’s biggest foreign aid benefactor and political ally, is pulling the rug from under Mubarek to usher in a perilously uncertain future.
If Mubarek quits as Obama demands, a power vacuum will fill the vast land of Egypt. Initial political elation will soon turn to squabbling. Yet without the institutions and rooted democratic parties, chaos could spread. A now wobbly economy doesn’t help.
President Barak Obama is ordering President Mubarak to step down and clear the way for political transition. This demand to a sovereign ruler evokes Obama’s own retort: “At times America has shown arrogance.”
Mubarek, a military man and not a tin-drum dictator as in many developing countries, remains too duty-bound to allow the country to slip into chaos and perhaps a Muslim fundamentalist fate. Though his political system was deeply flawed (what about Libya, Syria, and Sudan to name a few neighbors?), many of the endemic problems facing Egyptians actually stem from the country’s ingrained and pervasive corruption which even if elections were free and fair, would still rig the system against the common man.
Certainly many if not most of the anti-Murarek protesters at this stage are decent people and represent the country’s small but secular middle classes and well educated communities. But this remains the tip of the iceberg as the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood will ultimately stand to profit from the ensuing upheaval.
Indeed many of the anti-government protesters of the first days would soon fall afoul of the dark political forces of fundamentalism waiting in the wings. Mohammed El Baradei the urbane former UN diplomat has been suggested as an interim president. Nobel Laureate El Baradei, whose entire career was spent abroad in Vienna and New York, represents the typical transitional figure who would soon be toppled.
Much of the media animus towards Mubarek emerges from a lack of historical knowledge and context as much as viewing events as a morality play on Tahrir Square. Democracy is not necessarily defined by Tweets, or by political platitudes delivered on President Obama’s teleprompter.
There are many parallels with the Iranian revolution of 1979. Though the Iranians are not Arabs and follow a different branch of Islam, the political similarities of the revolt against Mubarak’s basically secular and modernizing order are obvious as may be the consequences for Egypt and the United States. As with Jimmy Carter’s disastrous Iran policy a generation ago, is Obama trying to make Egypt the foreign policy sequel?
What’s at stake? American interests will be put in peril. Though Egypt is not a petroleum producer, the country is a vital transit point for oil going to Europe. Any disruption of the free flow of oil through the strategic Suez Canal could cause further shocks for the global economy.
Politically too, trust in America as a steadfast ally has been jolted among America’s moderate Arab allies, especially Jordan. Moreover Egypt’s friendly ties with neighboring Israel may come into question, endangering the fragile Middle East peace.
The Egyptian military has acted with admirable professionalism and holds the ultimate key to continued stability, security and a peaceful transition to democracy. So will the ongoing revolution bring needed reform or feared retribution?
The biggest loser may not be Hosni Mubarak after all, but Israel and the United States.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense
issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.
We side with the Egyptian protestors, say the the Egyptian leaders must go. Ignore the Iranian protestors, don't say the Iranian leaders must go. Sympathize with the Chinese protestors in Tiananman Square, don't say the Chinese leaders must go. Sympathize with the Tibetans, don't say the Chinese leaders must go. Don't sympathize with the Christians being attacked in Egypt,Indonesia and Lebanon,and criticize Israel for its response to rocket attacks, but don't criticize the attackers. We threaten and criticize our allies and praise and bow to our enemies. That isn't arrogance, as Obama terms it, it is irrationality.
1:40 p.m. / Tuesday, February 8, 2011