Saturday, January 29, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of the wave of anti-government protests sweeping through the Arab world. As Americans, our first instinct is to view every revolution against tyranny through the lens of our own history. Reflexively, we root against the dictators, corrupt fascists who have denied freedom to their people for decades. Such an instinct is entirely appropriate: our democracy means nothing if it is used as a pillar of oppression overseas.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
When all is said and done, we can shed few tears for a dictator who is at long last deposed by those he has oppressed. At the same time, however, it's imperative to take a clear-eyed view of developments in the Islamic world, armed with a thorough understanding of the threats and opportunities presented by these events.


  1. You're painting the Suez Crisis very unfairly---Nasser's commandeering of the canal was an act of self-determination which did nothing to upset Western commercial interests, and it was the act of conspiracy between Britain and France that generated the crisis (and it was such an unjustifiable act it upset US-British relations for twenty-five years). And you're obfuscating the point that it was Israel who were originally militarily antagonistic towards Egypt, an event which certainly colours later engagements.

    What is most probable is that even the most anti-Israeli government that could emerge from this period of uncertainty would restrain itself to rhetoric rather than action, the former being rather less costly than the latter, and that we are far more likely to find a government more occupied with internal matters than a campaign against Israel that would undoubtedly end in failure.

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    Unfortunately, I think you are misled as to the events leading up to the 1967 war (or perhaps you are referring to 1956, which I did not characterize at all one way or another). I strongly recommend Michael Oren's Six Days of War to you as a resource.

    There are several levels between the cold peace we "enjoy" today and outright warfare. The most likely outcome of the current crisis is a government that would move Egypt in the wrong direction along that spectrum, as I have illustrated. If Jordan were also to fall, we would again have a situation in which Israel is surrounded by antagonists on all sides—a situation in which the odds of Arab military success may be re-examined.

    As for your evaluation of who was first antagonistic towards whom, suffice it to say that, again, I believe that history doesn't support your conclusion.

    Thanks again for your comment.

  3. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be unclear---I was referring to events of 1956.

    You stated that Nasser provoked the Suez Crisis which is to characterize it, especially when you mention it within the context of Egyptian-Israeli relations. The commandeering of the canal was not borne of antipathy towards Israel but was an act of sovereignty, and it was not predicted that Israel would use the opportunity to invade in a ham-fisted conspiracy with France and Britain.

    My point regarding Israeli antagonism towards Egypt is less ingenious because it relies on the reading that it was not until the fifties that Egypt existed as a sovereign nation. That is, for the first time in modern history the country was being run by Egyptians without relying on the consent of the British or the Ottomans. Israel's aggression at this junction wasn't as justifiable as it might have been before the regime change. And that Nasser came out on top from the Crisis, despite losing militarily, was precisely because the international community recognized the illegitimacy of Israel's conduct.

  4. That helps me understand where you're coming from, thank you.

    While I generally disagree with your analysis of the cause and repercussions of the 1956 conflict, I'm not sure it bears directly on the main points I was making. We're already seeing unrest and political reaction in Jordan, and Mubarak is now moving against his own people by sending in hired thugs to suppress the demonstrations. The Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its support behind El Baradei, who is weak and lacks a constituency of his own, and therefore can be easily controlled or even unseated.

    One hopes that the protesters, many of whom are legitimately interested in freedom--even perhaps democracy--will not at the end of the day find they've jumped from the frying pan of dictatorship into the fire of an Iranian-style totalitarian theocracy.

    Thank you for your observations and comments.

  5. Not the main points, perhaps, but I wasn't looking to make a point-for-point refutal. What I took exception to was that you implied Egypt came out of one revolution, the early-fifties revolution, with a view towards harming Israel, with the implication it would do so again.

    We both agree Nasser did well from the Suez Crisis, but you imply his actions were determined by antipathy towards Israel, when they were largely directed at Britain. We even have Nasser's manifesto, the six principles on which he mounted his coup against Farouk, foremost being 'the liquidation of colonialism and the Egyptian traitors who supported it', and none of them reflecting antagonism towards Israel.

  6. We're unlikely to agree on Nasser's intentions towards Israel in the 50s, I imagine. But I do appreciate your comments and I thank you for reading Writer of Wrongs and for your participation. Thanks!