After two weeks of protests, Hosni Mubarak has stepped down and turned authority over to the Egyptian military. What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy, political freedom in Egypt, and political stability throughout the Middle East?
U.S. Foreign Policy
When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the departure of Mubarak creates an inevitable but unwanted problem for the United States. Mubarak was a loyal U.S. ally and “friend” to Israel. He kept the crazies (e.g. Muslim Brotherhood) out of the government. But he also restricted the political freedoms of his people. As much as I think that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” sometimes that doesn’t exactly work out in the long-run. Depending on what kind of government Egypt eventually gets, the U.S. could have a true ally or a bitter enemy. Good luck, State Department. You’re gonna need it.
Luckily the Egyptian military is in control now. It is a strongly pro-American organization, since the U.S. supplies and trains it. As long as the military has control, we should be okay. The real transition of power is not Mubarak to the military, but the military to whatever is next. Sratfor.com has a very detailed article which adds context to the discussion about Mubarak’s departure:
Even at their peak, the protesters outnumbered neither the military nor the internal security services, which have roughly 1 million members between them. Compare this to the 1979 Iranian Revolution or the 1989 Central European revolutions when millions of people (in countries with far smaller populations than Egypt’s 80 million) turned out to protest. The military had the option of cracking down on the demonstrations, but did not see the benefits of such an option outweighing the costs. In fact, the demonstrations in many ways helped the military apply pressure on Mubarak to force his departure. In showing restraint, the military both co-opted the protesters, and demonstrated to the vast majority of Egyptians that the military could be trusted with the country. There were two audiences — those on the streets where the cameras were focused, and the other being the millions of Egyptians who, regardless of how they felt about Mubarak, did not feel compelled to join demonstrations that were disrupting everyday affairs. And the combination of the relatively small size of the protests and the military’s end-goal meant that the situation never rose to the point that the military feared losing control over the environment. As such, this transfer of power is a relatively orderly, internally managed process. The military is now playing a more overt role in managing the state, but the underlying power structure remains intact.
There weren’t that many protesters out there. If a transition to democracy takes place, it will be the people that stayed home who decide what direction the country should move. Will it move toward an Islamic state, like Iran, or will it embrace the secularism that has made Turkey a successful democracy? At this point, signs point toward the secular side, but it could all come down to which faction is the best organized. Let’s hope it isn’t the Muslim Brotherhood. If the MB takes over, relations with the U.S. will be strained at best. If a secular government is elected, relations with the U.S. might be good, might be bad. Who the hell knows?
Political Freedom in Egypt
Egyptians have lived for decades without political freedom. No free speech, no assembly, no nothing. With new freedoms, however, come great challenges. A free press is also a messy press. Assemblies can become mobs. Formerly oppressed extremists suddenly get to preach their nonsense to a susceptible public. While Egypt is definitely moving toward a free political system, the problems don’t end there. Nicholas Kristof, not exactly a guy I always agree with, has an interesting take on what all this means for political freedom in Egypt:
Mubarak’s resignation [may] mark a milestone toward their [the protesters’] goal — and I think it is, but it’s not the end of the journey. And let’s hope that the United States makes absolutely clear that it stands for full democracy, not just for some kind of false stability that derives from authoritarianism. The Obama administration missed the boat in the last few weeks, but I thought yesterday’s speech and statement by President Obama marked an improvement. Let’s hope it continues. May Mubarak’s resignation mark a new beginning — in Egypt, and also in wiser American policy toward Egypt and the Arab world.
At this point, is it hard to say how much political freedom Egyptians will get. But now that the genie is out of the bottle, the United States must support full democracy. Backing a military strong man would only push Egypt into a more unstable situation.
The elections are in September. Policy makers better figure out what to do before the shit hits the fan. (sorry for using so many cliches)
Political Stability Throughout the Middle East
As much as we’d all love to see the Middle East embrace freedom and democracy (we went to war in two Mideast countries to “liberate” them, after all), let’s be realistic. Democracy ain’t a bunch of unicorns, rainbows, and butterflies. Hamas got elected in Gaza. Hezbollah has won elections in Lebanon. CRAZY PEOPLE WIN ELECTION IN THE MIDDLE EAST! Why is this? Because just like Americans fall for “Hope and Change” and elect guys like Obama, Arabs fall for “Death to Israel” and elect guys like Osama. KT McFarland, a very smart woman who worked for the Reagan Defense Department, believes that “as Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East.” In an opinion piece at foxnews.com, KT writes:
What’s happening right now in Egypt is bigger than the fall of the Berlin Wall. The dominoes are falling in the Middle East; and as goes Egypt so goes the region.
Egypt has been the heartbeat of the Muslim Arab world for millennia. The problem is we don’t yet which way those dominoes will fall – towards us or against us. We don’t know if the euphoria we see in Tahrir Square today will end ultimately in jubilation or tears.
On one hand, in just a few years’ time, we could see all the Muslim states from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, even as far east as Pakistan, with some form of consensual government, moving in fits and starts toward democracy, with American students racing to the Middle East to spend their junior year abroad learning Arabic. On the other hand, we could just as easily see all those states in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, bent on establishing a Caliphate throughout the region and beyond, sending terrorists to Europe and America. And it’s unlikely to be anything in between.
KT has some advice for those policy makers who must decide the posture the U.S. takes toward Egypt:
While the U.S. may have been on the sidelines in the last two weeks as Egypt has struggled to break loose from an autocracy, our role going forward will be crucial. If the U.S. takes an active role in helping the Egyptians create the institutions of a free society, it could be a beacon for all Arab and Muslim countries in the region. If not, Egypt could become the tip of the spear of Islamic jihad.
In my adult lifetime, there were two moments in history that compare to Tahrir Square: the fall of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 80s. When the Berlin Wall came down, President Reagan and his successor, President Bush, flooded the former Warsaw Pact countries with people who knew how to set up the institutions of free societies. Today, those countries are vibrant democracies, pro-American to the core.
Contrast that to what happened when the Iranian people toppled the Shah in 1978. In the following months, President Carter sat on his hands, didn’t send in the advisers, preferring to leave Iran to the Iranians. In short order all those reformers were pushed aside and slaughtered by the better organized, more ruthless Islamic fundamentalists. Today, Iran is in a race to develop a nuclear weapons, and regularly calls for the destruction of the United States, the Great Satan.
After the well-deserved euphoria subsides, the challenges will remain – high unemployment, poverty, a stagnant economy. How Egypt goes about grappling with them, and how successfully they defeat them, will change the world. Whether Egypt is the next Iran or the next Eastern Europe will depend on the Egyptians themselves, but we can offer a helping hand. While we should never tell them what do to, we can help them do it.
It is a difficult balance between helping the Egyptians out or telling them what to do. I certainly don’t envy President Obama right now. Let’s hope, if the dominoes do fall, that new, pro-American democracies emerge.
And in closing, I want to express how thankful I am that I live in the good ole U.S. of A. and not some shit hole in the Middle East.