Uprising in Egypt isn't just about freedom and democracy

The discontent boiling to the surface in the Arab world is as much driven by complex demographics as politics. So politics alone won't restore stability. The US must come to terms with its reduced role in the region and reassess strategic partnerships.

If ever there was a need for cooler heads to prevail amid the crisis in Egypt, it is now. The end of the elderly President Hosni Mubarak’s iron-fisted regime was never a question of “if,” but rather “when.” Middle East hands have long recognized that virtually all Arab countries have been in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary state for more than a decade. Tunisia and Egypt merely blew first.

No one knows how the chaos on the streets of Cairo will play out, and it is this uncertainty which is most alarming, especially for the Israelis. But one thing is certain. The game in the Middle East is no longer unilateral. Washington can no longer go it alone.

Three things are now vital to understand, as they must shape US policy going forward.

First, we need to recognize that the rather successful peace treaty President Jimmy Carter negotiated between Egypt and Israel in the Camp David Accords of 1978 now looks potentially quite shaky.

Second, Americans need to recognize that after 9/11, after Iraq, and after the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the United States has far less influence in the region than ever before.

Lastly, what Washington most needs are friends in Turkey and Saudi Arabia that will help the entire region from going off the edge into an abyss.

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A complex chaos

The situation in Egypt is much more complicated than simplistic reports of democratic revolution would have us believe – and it is devolving at an alarming rate. The divisions in Egyptian society now coming to the surface speak to the chaotic nature of this so-called revolution. Egypt has a formidable military elite and a huge civilian bureaucracy, both of which have a vested interest in restoration of order. As mobs of looters destroyed high-end shopping centers, wealthier communities began to feel the threat of chaos at their gates. This is no unified front of popular resistance.

Mr. Mubarak’s place in history is yet to be decided. With all the current references to the Iranian revolution of 1979, we must understand that Mubarak was not Egypt in the sense that the Shah was Iran. But the specter of Iran’s revolution has long haunted Middle Eastern governments. In Egypt, both the military and civilian officialdom have much to lose, including, possibly their heads, if Egypt dissolves into unchecked anarchy as happened in Tehran.

Mubarak’s government has also long kept Islamist factions like the Muslim Brotherhood on a short leash, banning any political threat to his regime, but also keeping extremism at bay. That status is rapidly changing. Though Egypt’s Islamist parties were not directly responsible for angry bursts of violence on Cairo streets, they appear to be the beneficiaries of current anarchy. The Islamists’ protestation of peaceful intentions aside, the evacuation en masse of large numbers of Westerners from Cairo suggests people just don’t believe in their good intentions. There is nothing reassuring about the mass prison revolts that let hundreds of Islamists escape from prisons, allowing them to slip back into Egyptian society.

Arab world's angry youth

What has happened in Egypt was driven as much by demographics as politics. Nearly a third of Egypt’s 76 million people are under 15 years of age. Even educated young Egyptians are jobless or underemployed. The demographics of the entire Arab world weigh against them. There’s a similar situation of discontent in Saudi Arabia and most other Muslim countries in the region, where 60 percent of the population is under 30 – the highest percentage of youth of anywhere in the world.

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More than 25 percent of Egypt’s people live below the poverty line. Only billions of dollars in US aid has kept Egypt afloat for decades, and now the country’s economy is stalled precipitously. The vital tourism industry is crippled. How many tourists will be booking Nile cruises after seeing the images coming out of Cairo?

The present combustibility is undeniable, and it is now fueled by those who have had access to education mingling on the streets with those who have next to no schooling all trying to figure out how to survive in an economic basket case. This situation has been a time bomb in search of a spark for years.

Though his regime exacerbated and failed to address the country’s problems, Mubarak cannot entirely be to blame for Egyptian unemployment and poverty because these problems are endemic.

But Mubarak’s regime and many other Arab governments have callously squandered their people’s futures by grossly overspending on expensive weapons purchases rather than on public services such as education.

Whatever government follows Mubarak for the short-term may serve as little more than a temporary safety valve, because we cannot escape the fact that most Middle East societies have proved resistant to reform regardless of who’s in power. The problems wracking Egyptian society and driving mobs of discontented protesters have less to do with a particular regime, and more to do with the underlying issues at play in Arab societies. Those problems will not go away with a new government.

Avoid the blame game

One of the worst mistakes to be made at this point is a blame game. From Israel, some pundits are already shrieking, “Obama lost Egypt.” Some Israeli hysteria is understandable, given its earlier wars with Egypt. But suggesting that President Obama “lost Egypt” makes about as much sense as other blanket assignments of blame for “all that is wrong” in the Middle East. If Egypt is lost, Egyptians will have lost it, and there is not a lot any US administration could have done.

Even more nonsensical is former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams saying that the riots vindicate the Bush administration’s crusade for a democratic remake of the Middle East. Mr. Abrams’ criticism might have been more credible if the Bush administration had not spent eight years colluding with Israel to deny democracy to Palestinians.

US needs hard-nosed look and strategic partners

The violence in Cairo is not really just about “freedom and democracy,” as one broadcaster reporting from Egypt for the Western media intoned. Rather, it can be better described as a threatening mob at times. As riots have raged on, many of the protesters weren’t exactly watering the tree of liberty, and it wasn’t the tone of “peaceful resistance” raiding and burning Cairo this weekend.

Egyptian protests: people to watch

What romantic characterizations of democratic uprisings leave out is that the Egyptian street has also long been fueled by a seething hatred of Israel and the United States, going back to the days of the late Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s second president. Trying to defang that wrath cost another Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, his life. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, the extent that the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamic party fills a power vacuum after Mubarak has to be a serious concern in Washington and the region.

The US must now take a hard-nosed look at the situation in Egypt and come to terms with its reduced role in the region. Only by calling on the needed friendship of strategic partners such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia can the America hope to regain any peace or standing in the region.

Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN. He has written this piece specially this week, in addition to his regular, biweekly column for the Monitor.

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