Obama must back Egypt's regime, or face a disaster like US did in Iran
It is morally good for the US to speak about support for protestors, but it is also quite dangerous. Mubarak may go, but his regime is necessary for US and Israeli security, regional stability, and keeping at bay the Islamic extremists that would rise in its place. Obama must support it.
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On paper, this is an ideal policy: Mubarak should reform; the opposition should not use violence; and everything will turn out all right. Unfortunately, it has little to do with reality. If the regime does what Mr. Obama wants it to do, it will fall. And what is going to replace it? By his lack of outright support for Mubarak, the president is demoralizing an ally.
No matter what the United States says or does at this point, it is not going to reap the gratitude of millions of Egyptians as a liberator. For the new anti-regime leaders will blame America for its past support of Mubarak, opposition to Islamism, backing of Israel, cultural influence, and incidents of alleged imperialism.
Precedent for failed US strategies
This is not the first time this kind of problem has come up. The most obvious precedent is Iran in 1978 and 1979. At that time, the US strategy was to do precisely what Obama is doing now: announce support for the government, but press it to make reforms. The shah did not turn to repressive measures, partly because he didn’t have US support. So the revolution built up, and the regime fell. The result wasn’t good.
There is a second part of this story as well. Experts on television, consulting with the government, assured everyone that the revolution would be moderate, the Islamists couldn’t win, and even if they did, this new leadership could be dealt with. That didn’t turn out too well, either.
Even more forgotten is how the situation in Egypt came to be in the first place. Back in 1952, US policymakers supported – it was not a US-engineered coup, but they were favorable to – an army takeover. The idea was that the officers would be friendly to the United States, hostile to the Soviet Union and communism, and more likely to enjoy mass support.
The pattern is for US policy to believe that getting rid of a corrupt regime – the Egyptian monarchy in 1952; Iran's shah in 1978; Mubarak now – and supporting a new, popular regime with a seemingly appealing ideology will produce stability and benefit US interests. In fact, the last two times, this strategy resulted in the two biggest disasters in the history of US Middle East policy.
And this is the strategy policymakers and experts are endorsing today.
No organized, moderate opposition
Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the reformist movement, makes the following argument against my analysis:
“Mubarak has convinced the United States and Europe that they only have a choice between two options – either they accept this authoritarian regime, or Egypt will fall into the hands of the likes of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda….Mubarak uses the specter of Islamist terror to prevent a third way: the country’s democratization. But Washington needs to know that the support of a repressive leadership only creates the appearance of stability. In truth, it promotes the radicalization of the people.”
This is a reasonable formulation. But one might also say that nothing would promote the radicalization of the people more than having a new radical regime in power – the Islamist regime that would probably rise in the absence of any other organized opposition.
That is not to say that there aren’t good, moderate, pro-democratic people in Egypt, but they have little power, money, or organization. Though opposition leaders have now formed a loose coalition backing Mr. ElBaradei, this backing includes leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that they are dependent on the Muslim Brotherhood is shown by ElBaradei's negotiating with that group for a coalition. Much of his past support has also, in fact, come from the Brotherhood. And he himself has no governing experience, no independent base, and limited abilities to govern.
This hardly constitutes an organized, moderate opposition. Even the most important moderate organization of the past, the Kifaya movement that emerged in 2004, has already been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood.