Unfortunately, misreading history is also an American instinct. Revolution may be common, but democracy is precious and rare. The upheaval in the Muslim world is not inspired by a philosophy of what those governments should be; they are inspired by a revulsion at what those governments have become. The common goal of the rioters in the streets is change, but once they have successfully forced the autocrats from their palaces, that goal will have been met. What will be left is a vacuum demanding to be filled. If history is a guide, it is likely to be filled by the largest, best organized, or most heavily armed aspirant to leadership.
In the Muslim Middle East, revolution has never yielded democracy. Indeed, the only Muslim democracy in that part of the globe was not the result of popular rebellion, but rather, imposed by the United States on Iraq (and, let's face it, the long-term viability of that experiment is still very much in doubt). If, as George W. Bush suggested, "liberty... is God's gift to the world", it is a gift rejected time and again, not only by Middle Eastern tyrants, but by the revolutionaries who supplant them.
The situation in Egypt is no different. Modern Egypt was born of a revolution against British rule led in part by Gamal Abdul Nasser. Assuming the premiership in 1956, Nasser, a military dictator, ruled Egypt with an iron hand, even as he maneuvered to become the leader of the Arab world. Nasser's position only deteriorated after his humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967 in a war he precipitated.
The correlation of Nasser's career with his military success—or lack thereof—against Israel is unsurprising. Egypt's leaders in the latter half of the 20th century depended on the average Egyptian's antipathy towards Israel for their popularity. One of Nasser's first acts in office was to provoke the 1956 Suez Canal crisis; the resulting failure of Israel, Britain and France to hold the Suez, and Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai, firmly established Nasser's position at the head of the Egyptian regime.
|As the sun sets on Mubarak, will the peace with |
Israel be plunged into darkness?
Indeed, one contributor to the current unrest—unmentioned on CNN but implied in the cheerleading coverage of al Jazeera—is dissatisfaction with Egypt's peace with Israel. Don't get me wrong: the cold peace with Israel, the status of which has remained unchanged for some time, probably didn't spark the outbreak of popular revolt. But it is and remains an irritant, a perennial entry on the list of grievances nursed by Egyptians against their leader.
So what can we expect in post-revolutionary Egypt? The main players in the revolt are the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization with ties to Middle Eastern terror groups, and Kefaya, a more secular opposition movement. Neither has asserted itself as a successor so far—it is still too early for such positioning. But perhaps we can get a clue to the outcome from the reaction of other Muslim nations.
The most important Islamic revolution in my lifetime took place in Iran in 1979. Fed up with the history of oppression under their US-backed dictator, the Iranians rose up, successfully replacing their secular autocracy with an Islamic theocracy. Most Iranians today were not yet born in 1979—the only oppression they've known has been at the hands of the Imams. Their 2009 revolt, perhaps the first such rebellion in the region with any chance of producing a native-born Islamic democracy, was ruthlessly crushed by the Ayatollah's regime.
And so, the Islamists remain in charge in Tehran. Their reaction to rioting in Egypt? They are cheering on the revolution:
[In Egypt], Muslims are more active in political agitation and, God willing, they will establish the regime that they want... Today, as a result of the gifts of the Islamic revolution in Iran, freedom-loving Islamic peoples such as the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and nearby Arab countries are standing up to their oppressive governments.Clearly, the Islamists are betting on the Muslim Brotherhood. American intellectuals, such as Leon Wieseltier, fear that the Iranian analysis may be on the mark:
[T]he politics of the revolt are murky. Its early stages have not been the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is hard to believe that the Islamist organization will not be tempted to play the Bolshevik role in this revolution: it has the ideology and the organization with which to seize control of the situation, and it is the regime’s most formidable political adversary.Whatever Egypt looks like in the post-Mubarak era, we can be pretty sure of a few things:
- The government will be hostile to Israel. While the Egypt-Israel relationship under Mubarak has hardly been a love affair, it's entirely possible that a new Egyptian regime could scuttle the peace treaty entirely. That treaty, brittle though it may be, has been the platform on which decades of relative stability between Israel and its neighbors (Lebanon being the notable exception) has rested.
- The government will be hostile to the United States. As an incentive for its treaty with Israel, the US has gifted Egypt with about $2 billion per year of foreign aid. The average Egyptian, not without reason, has viewed this money as a means of propping up the dictator they hate and as a reward for their sworn enemy, Israel. Make no mistake: anti-US sentiment is a significant driver behind the protests in Egypt's streets.
- Jordan will be next. If anything, Jordan's relatively enlightened monarch, King Hussein, is even more hated by his subjects than Mubarak. Perhaps as much as half of Jordan's population is of Palestinian extraction; in 1970, the PLO even tried (unsuccessfully) to overthrow the father of the current king. Needless to say, Jordan's peace with Israel and solid friendship with the United States are deeply unpopular with Jordanians.