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Burning Bush

The mass uprising in Egypt that seems set to overthrow the Mubarak regime is the latest test of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. The U.S. and Israel are hoping it works out better than the previous three.

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Mohamed ElBaradei arrives at Cairo’s Tahrir Square to address a crowd of protesters last night. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrations are overtaken by events all the time. And so President Barack Obama may be forgiven for his strange press conference on Egypt last week, in which he didn’t seem to know whether to praise Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Washington’s longtime ally, or side with the masses whom the U.S. president has been courting since his 2009 Cairo speech. And yet the fact remains that the Obama Administration has no strategy to deal with events still unfolding in Egypt, nor even a worldview on which to base one. His predecessor, for all his flaws, did have a strategy. What we’ve been watching on the streets of Egypt this past week is the fourth test of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda.

The Bush White House believed that the problem with the Arabic-speaking Middle East was in the nature of repressive Arab regimes: In this view, Sept. 11 was the product of a political culture that had been strangled by its rulers, allowing their people no form of political expression except extremism. Deposing these regimes would unleash the native political energies of Arab peoples, went the argument, who would turn their attention away from anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments to the thoughtful participatory governance of their own societies. Accordingly, promoting democracy in the region was not only good for the Arabs, but also in America’s national interest. The first test for this Freedom Agenda was Iraq, followed by Lebanon and then the Palestinian Authority. Egypt is the fourth test—and the most consequential yet, for Cairo is the linchpin of Washington’s Middle East strategy.

Egypt was once commonly referred to as leader of the Arab world—an honorific denoting Egypt’s leadership in the arts, intellectual life, and media, as well as its enormous population of 80 million. And unlike other Arab states—Syria, say, or Saudi Arabia—Egypt has a real history and identity dating back thousands of years. Primarily, however, “leader of the Arab world” referred to Cairo’s political status, specifically its role in the wars against Israel.

When Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, was in office, all his political capital rested on the fact that Egypt, unlike U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Jordan, clamored for war with the Zionist entity. When Anwar Sadat, his successor, brought Egypt from the Soviet to the American side after the 1973 war, it represented a Cold War victory for Washington that paid huge strategic dividends. However, it is one of the paradoxes of U.S. Middle East policy that by signing a peace treaty with Jerusalem, Sadat took Cairo out of the front-line camp and thereby weakened the regional prestige of a key American ally. Of course that treaty also put Sadat in the crosshairs of the Islamists, who killed him at Cairo stadium in 1981, with Mubarak beside him on the reviewing stand.

That peace has not only been good for the United States, securing our hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also of course for Israel. It is that treaty with Cairo that allows Israel the relative luxury to worry primarily about a Persian adversary far from its borders and two terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah. The prospect of Egypt, with a large U.S.-trained and equipped army, air force, and navy, once again becoming “leader of the Arab world” is a nightmare for Israel’s leaders.

The U.S.-backed order in the Middle East is founded entirely on Cairo’s position as an ally—and on keeping the peace, as Mubarak has. If Egypt moves out of the American fold, it might well align itself with Iran. Mubarak has known well enough to fear the Islamic Republic—a street in Tehran is named after Sadat’s assassin. Or perhaps it would challenge the Iranians, in the way regional competition has worked since 1948—by seeing who can pose the greatest threat to Israel. Therefore, this fourth test of the freedom agenda could not be more important.

***

Unfortunately, after the first three runs, it’s hard to be optimistic this time. What we’ve seen so far is that the political energies unleashed by the Freedom Agenda are not democratic but tribal, sectarian, and violent. In Gaza, the Palestinian electorate voted for Hamas. In Lebanon, while the majority voted for the pro-democracy March 14 movement, Hezbollah still won power in government even as it embarked on a bloody campaign culminating last week in the party’s takeover of the state. After U.S. forces brought down Saddam Hussein, Iraqis turned on each other, fueled by more than a thousand years of a sectarian rage that was further aggravated by Saddam as Sunnis and Shiites shed blood at a clip typically associated with the grislier sectors of central Africa.

It is true that Egypt is not Iraq. And yet as many seem to have forgotten, only a month ago Islamist militants attacked a church in Alexandria, killing 23 Coptic Christians. To be sure, many Muslims rallied to defend their Christian neighbors, and today there are Christians in the street alongside the Muslim majority, but anyone who thinks sectarian tensions are simply the fault of “extremists,” or the Mubarak regime’s inability to protect Christians, is missing the point: The execution of minorities strongly suggests that a society might not be ready for democracy.

The relevant minority here are the liberals and democrats, for they do indeed exist and Egypt is the historical capital of Arab liberalism, from the novelist Taha Hussein to the journalist Farag Foda. Today there are a number of bloggers, intellectuals, and journalists, like the playwright Ali Salem and Hala Mustafa, editor of the political journal Dimoqratiya (Democracy), who keep the liberal flame alive. The former wrote a book about his trip to Israel and the latter met with the Israeli ambassador, and both were punished for it and ostracized by their colleagues. This is an indication not only of their lack of popularity but also the temperament of Egyptian intellectual culture: illiberal and populist—in other words, undemocratic.

There is some truth to the idea that Mubarak has choked off his liberal opposition, leaving only the Muslim Brotherhood to challenge him, but arguably the Egyptian liberal movement came to an end with the 1926 publication of Taha Hussein’s work on pre-Islamic poetry, which dealt with the historical and literary foundations of Islam. Under pressure from the religious authorities and death threats from Islamists, Hussein removed the passages deemed offensive, and the precedent was set: Men with guns make the rules, which liberals must abide by or be killed. Nonetheless, more than half a century later, Foda challenged the Islamists, and they reminded him how precarious liberalism is in Egypt by gunning him down in a Cairo street in 1992.

The Islamists, represented now by the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, are one of only two political institutions that would survive Mubarak’s downfall; the other is the military. Indeed, Egypt has been run by military rulers more often than not—from the Muslim conqueror of Egypt Amr ibn al-‘As to the Albanian soldier Mohamed Ali, whose dynasty fell to Nasser’s Free Officers in a 1952 coup. Mubarak’s son Gamal’s presidency would have represented something like a coup d’etat against the military, which is why they got him out and chief of military intelligence Omar Suleiman was named vice president, making him Mubarak’s official successor. The awful irony is that Gamal and his gang of young financiers and businessmen probably represented Egypt’s best chance to move away from military rule. At least this is what much of the Washington policy establishment believed, with the hope of getting Gamal to pick up the pace of political reform to match the country’s notable economic reform. If Mubarak goes down, the security forces, the military and the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will fight each other, or cut a deal, or both.

***

Consider the other options. The United States wants national dialogue, which seems to include Mohamed ElBaradei. By virtue of his name recognition alone, the former IAEA head has been hailed by the Western press as one of the leaders of the democratic opposition. However, at the IAEA this so-called reformer distorted his inspectors’ reports on Iran and effectively paved the way for the Islamic Republic’s march toward a nuclear bomb. Now the Muslim Brotherhood has named him as their interlocutor. In other words, ElBaradei is nothing other than a shill for Islamists.

There’s also Ayman Nour, leader of the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) party, who finished third in the last presidential elections before he was jailed on trumped-up charges. Then there’s Saad Eddine Ibrahim, the Arab world’s most famous democratic-rights activist, who was also imprisoned by Mubarak and is now living abroad in the United States. During Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, Ibrahim came down on the side of the Lebanese militia. Ibrahim’s posture was hardly surprising given that his onetime jailer despised Hezbollah. But it is odd that a democratic advocate should applaud war with Israel, a country with whom Cairo has had a peace treaty for more than 30 years.

Maybe this should be one of the tests for Egypt’s democrats in the streets: Where do you stand on Israel? If they are really democrats, or just pragmatists, the young among them protesting for higher pay would answer that warmer relations with an advanced, European-style economy—like, say, Israel’s—would provide jobs for the millions of Egypt’s unemployed. Of course that is not the answer you’re going to get from the young men now filling the streets of Cairo. Or forget about Israel and ask them instead about Hezbollah. Do they support the Islamic resistance? Of course they do, because Egypt’s most famous democrat Saad Eddine Ibrahim supports Hezbollah, the outfit that has turned the remnants of Lebanese democracy on its head while killing its opponents.

No doubt there are real liberals and democrats in Egypt, and some may even be in the streets today, but they are not going to come out on top. In part that is because the United States is not going to help them. Indeed, Washington showed how seriously it takes Arab liberals and democrats two weeks ago when it watched silently from the sidelines as Hezbollah toppled Saad Hariri’s government. Plenty of Arabs hoping for a democratic Lebanon died over the last five years since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and it is important to note that the million-plus Lebanese who went to the streets on March 14, 2005 demonstrated peacefully, unlike the Egyptians, and all the destruction and violence was caused by Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies.

That the United States will not come to the aid of its liberal allies, or strengthen the moderate Muslims against the extremists, is one reason why the Freedom Agenda is not going to work, at least not right now. The underlying reason then is Arab political culture, where real democrats and genuine liberals do not stand a chance against the men with guns.

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This is a thoughtful analysis. More thoughtful than most of the mainstream media pundits. Sadly, I think Lee Smith is right on the money.
Arabs have always equated “liberalism” with weakness. Only Menachem Begin, whom the Egyptians greatly feared could successfully bring them to the bargaining table. And in giving “land for peace,” and returning Sinai and Gaza, he said proudly, “I have given up not one tiny handful (‘aff sh’aal’) or Eretz Yisrael.”

Kudos to Mr. Smith. The Western media, including people who should know better like Anne Applebaum, are all agog over the mirage of democracy on the Nile. I tremble for the future.

David Zohar says:

Mr Smith writes accurately. As seen from Israel, the possibly imminent downfall of an Arab leader who maintained peaceful ties for thirty years could be ominous: the other peace treaty- with Jordan- could crumble, and chances of reviving peace talks with Palestinians and Syrians would drop to zero.

Peoples and leaders around the world are watching the fumbling USA with trepidation. As Mr Smith says:”the Obama Administration has no strategy to deal with events still unfolding in Egypt, nor even a worldview on which to base one.” If that is so, then the USA cannot be trusted.One may expect a shift in Arab Middle East loyalties to Iran, as Obama presides over the downfall of the American Empire.
Similar shifts will take place in other corners of the world.

Israeli journalists are already speculating openly about a future in which Israel has no friends left in the Middle East, while already seeing Washington as unreliable.Given this prognosis one can expect Israel to circle the wagons and hunker down, ignoring all calls to be “forthcoming” towards the Palestinians, who stand to be the big losers of these latest developments.

It would seem that Russians, Chinese, Indians, Turks and those Europeans who understand “realpolitik” better than the nice but very naive people in Washington will be quick to pick up the chips as “Pax Americana” disintegrates. .

Stalin must be chuckling in his grave.

David Zohar
(retired Israeli diplomat)
Jerusalem

Ken Besig, Israel says:

As I live in Israel I am very concerned that the radical fundamentalist Pan Arab terrorist group the Muslim Brotherhood is about to form the next regime in Egypt. Everyone in Israel knows and fears that when the Muslim Brotherhood takes over in Cairo, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will be abrogated, and will probably lead to the Jordanian Israel peace treaty being trashed as well.
President Obama’s mealy mouthed and weak support for the Mubarak regime is inconsistent with his stated demand for regime change in Cairo. Indeed, along with the Obama hostility towards Israel, the Obama betrayal of it’s most loyal, supportive, and even peace loving Arab ally, the Mubarak regime, has probably proved to most of America’s Arab and Third World allies that Obama is not to be trusted.
The Obama administratation plainly hasn’t got a clue about the reality of the Arab Middle East. It is pursuing a best case scenario for a wide based, participatory, democratic, and open regime to replace Mubarak’s government when the experience of Hizballa terrorist group takeover in Lebanon and the murderous Hamas overthrow of the PA in the Gaza Strip provide a far more realist paradigm of regime change in the Middle East.

“The execution of minorities strongly suggests that a society might not be ready for democracy.” That would have been a challenging standard to meet, especially for the US in its troubled history. Israel too, unfortunately.

If you believe in democracy, then you believe in the right of all peoples to rule themselves. That isn’t a belief reserved for certain cultures or based on outcomes. Everyone is entitled to self-government. Justice, peace and prosperity are challenges that democracies must struggle to solve.

Endorsing tyrants and dictators is not a moral position here, no matter how frightened you are.

Ken Besig, Israel says:

There are Arab tyrants who will kill me for being a Jew and there are Arab tyrants who won’t, the ones who won’t are the ones I support.

I’m sorry, but not everything in the world revolves around America and Israel. People are fighting and dying for civil liberties and democracy in the middle east, they don’t deserve to have their freedom sacrificed for our political convenience.

Democracy is great, but only if it prevails. The question is whether the Obama Administration is, by tacit support of the street “democrats” actually providing for another Khomeini-style Islamic Republic (Sunni, this time), and whether the Iranians, 30 years after, are happier than they were under the Shah? Because in the build up to that democratic revolution the United States also followed its democratizing ideology, supported the street over the shah; to see the only organized force in Iranian society, the ayatollahs, depose the democrats by force. End US-sponsored democracy; end US ally in the region.

In 1993 the Bush Administration decapitated the Sunni Baathist tyranny in favor of America’s democratic ideology, and now looks uncomfortably at a Shiite regime in sympathy with, and increasingly allied to the Islamic (Shiite) Republic of Iran; where once American interests in defending the oil-producing monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula were served by Iraq threatening Iran, today Iran sits on the Iraqi border with the emirates and the Saudis.

And let us not forget the memorable effort to introduce democracy to Palestine in 2008. Bush ordered those elections to proceed, to include the unrepentant and armed Hamas, over the protests of PA president Abbas and Israeli prime minister Olmert, who clearly saw that which US ideology masked, that Hamas would win outright. And when the obvious did occur Bush ordered a coup against his democratically-elected Hamas government, and lost that one too. Result, two Palestines.

Egypt is Iran and Iraq redux. There is no organized “democratic” opposition (even Iran was better situated back then) and the only three parties capable of governing are Mubarak’s, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, idealistic as our president is, he is supporting the “democratic” street. And when the Muslin Brotherhood (who murdered Sadat!) take power, what will the US do then, launch another coup?

You know, the more I think about this the more concerned I am, not just for events on the ground in the Middle East but for the quality of the American foreign policy team.

On the street (American city streets, I mean) drug addicts repeat and seem to accept that, “Harm yourself once, that’s an ‘accident;’ do so repeatedly is called ‘insanity!’”

What am I missing here?

dani levi says:

I can not help but feel that many critics of Israel and the USA mistake democracy in the Arab world with a legitimacy to wage war against Israel. As if Israel or any European nation would endorse a democratically elected government that would wage war against Israel. Why should Israel welcome a possible election result that calls for its demise? Because it is “democratic” ? This would lead to war, albeit one that is “democratically” decided.
Like Hamas which was elected, calls for the destruction of Israel. Following the argument that we often here, we should except the result which would lead to wide spread violence which in turn would lead to the defeat in war of Hamas and its constituency.
It seems obvious that any Arab government elected which does not call for war against Israel is most welcome. However, the insistence by many that any result, regardless of its effect on Israel needs to be respected is either stupid, it would mean that the West excepts war, or anti-semitic.
Apart from this obvious logical inconsistency, regarding Israel’s survival. It also negates the very high probability that such a government would not allow a second election on its watch. As we can see in Aza and Tehran and Russia for example.

If the result of democracy is its abolition, it would not be democracy, me thinks.

Similar happened in Germany in 1933, when the National Socialist Party gained 33% of the votes and used its leverage and the ensuing chaos to unhinge the democratic process. Using the Ermächtigungsgesetz or Enabling Act parliament simply suspended itself.
This logic is no surprise in a fascist society, as it would not surprise me in an Arab society. Islamism has its own democratic/sharia logic. As long as there is not a single Arab democracy smug arguments about the Wests double standards are either irresponsible or anti-semitic.

After Chamberlain let us be wary. After all, the Arabs do not trust themselves. Why should we trust them?

A.L. Bell says:

On the one hand: I think it’s completely reasonable to ask whether the demonstrations in Egypt are really what they seem. Are the demonstrations really part of a democratic popular uprising, or are creeps who would make Mubarak look like Mother Theresa using the Egyptian people as democracy puppets?

But, on the face of it, the situation in Egypt looks bad and has looked bad for decades. Mubarak may be a great friend of sanity and Israel, but he’s also been in power for 30 years, and, no matter who’s orchestrating what, many ordinary Egyptians are furious at Mubarak.

If Israel has a peace with Egypt that really depends on Mubarak operating a police state and putting many political prisoners in the hands of torturers, how stable can that peace really be? And, in the long run, is it smart for Israel to cozy up to a dictator who keeps the world safe for Israel by torturing people? What kind of creeps are we if we tell the world, “Hey, we love Mubarak — he tortures people for us!!!”

And, sure, the situation is more complicated than that. Maybe Mubarak is just a moderately tough guy doing his best to keep the peace for all decent people, Muslim as well as Jewish, as best he can in a tough part of the world.

But, even looking at this from Mubarak’s point of view: he needs open support from the United States and Israel like he needs a pine cone sweater. If he stays in power by letting demonstrators wear themselves out and making a complicated political deal, then maybe he can stumble along; if he survives as an obvious U.S. puppet, then he’s a political cripple.

Now we know why ElBardei could never find anything wrong with Iran’s nuclear build up. He was always in the lap of radical Muslims and the Soros organization who do not care one bit about the United States, Israel or freedom. Radicals want Islam to control the world and Soros wants his money to control the radicals and the world. All very comfy.

Unfortunately almost all Arab states in the region are run top-down and decidedly not democratic. Moral or not, that is the reality of how stability is apparently maintained. The US disapproved of her ally, the Shah of Iran and quietly supported the democratic revolution. The result was transformation from monarchy to theocracy. And I hardly thing the street participating in last year’s “Green” revolution would agree that theocracy was a step-up. But there are large and militant minorities in that country, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia, etc., and while it might violate our political sensibilities to be allied with such tyrannies, in those countries a strong and centralized authority may be needed to maintain stability.

Bush “freed” Iraq from the tyranny of Sadam, and the country fell into a civil war that continues to this day. Was he brutal, yes; would we want him for a neighbor, no. But he kept the country unified. Seven years after we liberated Iraq, outside of the fact that we replaced a regime that served to stabilize the region by threatening Iran for a regime increasingly aligned with Iran, between the Kurds to the north and Shiites to the south and the Sunnis in between, the likely future for that hapless country, whose losses in life likely far exceed the numbers dead at the hands of the “butcher of Baghdad,” will be division between the three major religio-ethnic groups. Paternally benevolent “regime change” in action; we freed the Iraqis!

Before Bush ordered the assault on Iraq he was told that the Arab population was made up of the minority Sunni who ruled, and the majority Shiite sect. The American way was to empower the deprived Shiites, and they now rule, and happen to be the same religion as the previously enemy Iranians. Bush ignorance may have cost the US the Middle East, and its oil, and the Suez Canal, and its strategic geographic location. And the Iraqis are still suffering our benevolence.

There is no such thing as a right to install an Islamist regime, because there is no such thing as a right to enslave. A people absolutely do not have the right to replace a regime with a more repressive regime. If they do, it does not become a legitimate result just because “the people” “chose” it.

LazerBeam says:

The incompetent, dullard scion of George Herbert Walker Bush, G.W., did irreparable damage to the strategic interests of the U.S. that will reverberate throughout the ages. Mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. as a Great Power with his presidency. He also proves that the U.S. is not yet ready for Democracy but is still susceptible to fascism. That being the case, run away fast from his younger brother, Jeb. He is far more competent and far more dangerous.

B”H Yom Shlishi, Shvat 27‏‎, 5771; I wish I could include myself in this discussion but the political views expressed seem to touch on all the important points. There seems to be lacking an imminent issue of Jewish survival in all the proponents of all the suggestion detailing the way problems become so complex that no one claims they can understand how to approach them. I have urged awareness on the readers of this wonderful Tablet, we are faced with the threat of extinction both as a people and a nation. Anytime throughout history that Jewish people faced serious crises the first thing we do is get into the town hall and say selichos and prayers for forgiveness, to take account of out involvement and to discern our responsibilities in arriving to a renewed approach to strengthen our Judaism. And here it is important to remind the readers that terror is a subjective term as is the fear produced by government to make their citizenry accept the expensive and destructive cost of war – to the enemy as to the victor the spoils, so anti-Occident is not unique to any particular area on the globe since the imperialists have robbed everything for themselves. The events in Jordan and Syria should sound alerts that reverberate in the depths of our souls, and since we suggest that the government of Egypt succumbs to an Islamic Conquest of Mesopotamia, we might do well to; respect, and learn to accept the authority over our Arab brethren (as pertains to modest dress, etc.) we had lived for two thousand years until 1948 statehood in lands that were under their control. You may read my earnest efforts to portray a vision towards a secure freedom at http://www.englishquickly.com , pg. 2

Interesting take on things.

I like you blog (désolé, je suis francais, je parle mal anglais)

I’ve said that least 964468 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Appreciating the time and energy you put into your blog and in depth information you present. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed material. Great read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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Burning Bush

The mass uprising in Egypt that seems set to overthrow the Mubarak regime is the latest test of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. The U.S. and Israel are hoping it works out better than the previous three.

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