America Should Be Wise to Mubarak's Game
By Kirk H. Sowell | March 18, 2007
In recent days Egypt has witnessed dramatic but impotent protests against new changes to the constitution which both the democratic and Islamist opposition label as a strengthening of the police state. A familiar pattern has recurred - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, raises the specter of the Islamist threat in order to justify his rule in Western eyes, engineers a new law enhancing his power, in plain view of all raises the iron fist the moment that the secular opposition protests, and declares it a day of progress for Egyptian democracy. Over the weekend Arab TV channels al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have reported on protests by the secular Egyptian Movement for Change, nicknamed Kifaya ("Enough!"), against a new constitutional reform, with police streaming into the streets to put an end to it.
If nothing else, this shows that to the list of Mubarak's "reforms" he can add the abolition of the concept of irony in Egypt - Egyptian citizens protest peacefully against the police state, so the police descend in full view of international television and suppress the protest.
America's foreign aid to Egypt is defended as necessary to shore up a "moderate" Arab government at peace with Israel which is holding back the threat of militant Islam. Here I will argue that the reality is much to the contrary - the Egyptian government deliberately suppresses non-Islamist democratic activism with an iron fist and quietly but carefully maintains conflict in Palestine as an outlet for anger at home, while U.S. support for Mubarak's government is a significant factor in driving anti-Americanism among the Egyptian population.
Al-Hayat ("Mubarak Defends Constitutional Amendments and Expresses Regret Over Opposition Boycott of the Referendum") reports that the thing that has the opposition upset is that the proposed constitutional amendments will change judicial oversight of elections in a way that will empower the state apparatus controlled by the ruling party, and also ban political activity on the basis of religion. If it were only the Muslim Brotherhood protesting then perhaps Mubarak's reforms would deserve some consideration, but secular opposition has been vigorous, while gathering the most attention from the police for their efforts.
Anthony Shadid at the Washington Post has an article that is worth reading in understanding the collapse of the secular opposition ("Imagining Otherwise in Egypt: Opposition Campaign Embodying Bush Vision Now Lies in Pieces"). He summarizes the results of the past five years of democratic activism:
...Today, that movement is in shambles. Its most committed supporters admit to a lack of vision, an inability to capture the imagination of the Egyptian people. Its leadership is riven by disputes over everything from the veil to charges of corruption. The government has crushed its momentum with impunity, deploying the ubiquitous security forces to arrest scores of activists, intimidate others and signal to the rest that it will no longer tolerate unsanctioned protest. Across the divide, the government's supporters and foes are unanimous in their belief that U.S. pressure for change, occasionally effective in the past, has now decisively subsided.
"The sense of powerlessness is complete," said Mohammed el-Sayed Said, a secular activist and writer who is trying to win permission to publish a new newspaper, the Alternative. "We're back to the status quo we wanted to liberate the country from"...
Secular activists have long claimed that they are even more forcefully suppressed than the Islamists, a charge which is hard to verify precisely, but which from my observation is defensible. Shadid includes a personal account from one Kifaya activist of the state's response to his open call for a more representative government:
...on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004 -- a colleague dropped Qandil off at 3 a.m. near his home on the bustling road to the Pyramids. It was Ramadan again, the Muslim month of fasting when Cairo seems to stay up round-the-clock. A few minutes later, a car with four men barreled toward him and stopped. The men jumped out, blindfolded him and stuffed him in the back seat. The car then careened into Cairo's warrens, passing checkpoints unhindered.
"I thought I was a dead man," Qandil recalled. During the hour-long ride, he remembered being given a clear message: "No more words about the big people," he was told. Next time he would be killed. A few minutes later, one of the men answered his cellphone. "Yes, sir," Qandil recalled him barking, as if answering an order.The car stopped on the outskirts of the city, on the road toward Suez. Qandil said the men stripped and beat him, stole his cellphone and the equivalent of about $100, then left him lying in the desert at the side of the road...
Shadid also notes that Egypt has served as a base for Palestinian radicalism, although unfortunately he introduces the subject by writing "[t]hen came the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in September 2000, its images filtering across a landscape..." Unlike the first intifada in the late 1980s, which truly was a popular uprising which mostly targeted the Israeli military, the Al-Aqsa Intifada to which Shadid refers was a coordinated terrorist campaign which mainly targeted Israeli civilians. Shadid is correct in describing how it is portrayed in the Arab world, but the Post should not be describing this as a fact. Shadid's broader point on the issue, however, is valid - searing popular anger toward Israel and the United States, useful at times, has from time to time turned toward Egypt's own problems, although the government has continued to be successful and slanting most public attention toward Palestine. And with most Egyptians apathetic or turned elsewhere, the secular opposition has run aground.
This is indeed exactly how it plays in Egypt, and Mubarak wants it that way. It isn't simply anti-Israeli protests that Egypt tolerates, indeed encourages, but Hamas has received weapons across (more often, literally under) the Egyptian border and Hamas members given sanctuary in Egypt have been able to move back and forth in and out of Gaza. None of this would be possible without the complicity of Mubarak's authoritarian state. The maintenance of violence in Palestine serves Mubarak's interests as a means of channeling popular anger outward, and as a way of presenting Egypt to the world as a necessary mediator. Right now the Egyptian government and the Egyptian-dominated Arab League (its head, Amr Musa, is a former Egyptian foreign minister) are pushing the west to accept the new Hamas-Fatah unity government. If the Palestinians were to ever succeed in establishing an independent state in peaceful coexistence with Israel, Egyptian eyes would turn toward affairs at home, and the government would have to confront a suddenly empowered monster it thought it had kept on a short leash.
The United States should use this as another opportunity to revisit the $2 billion foreign assistance package it gives to the Egyptian government each year. The Muslim Brotherhood is indeed a threat; broadly partnered with the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia, the MB has served as the seed for radical Islamists movements across the Arab world, as its model of radicalizing society from the roots up has been widely followed, most notably by the Palestinian Hamas. Many of its members have moved seamlessly from social and political activism to membership in terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and Hamas' military arm. Osama bin Laden's late mentor, Abdullah Azzam, was an influential MB activist and propagandist in Jordan and Palestine before moving to Saudi Arabia to teach, where he would influence his most infamous pupil. There is no evidence that Azzam was outside the Brotherhood mainstream before he began his partnership with bin Laden.
Yet the Mubarak regime is not a brake on radical Islam, but a generator of support for the movement. Its corruption and suffocating inefficiency give the MB its strongest platforms. The average Egyptian is not a natural terrorist-sympathizer, nor does he yearn for a Wahhabi or Taliban-style implementation of Islamic law. Yet he is responsive to the call of Islamic values, and if he is educated enough to see through the smokescreen created by the state controlled media, he is eager for an alternative to Mubarak. Egyptian society is divided into three main elements. One large segment of the population is traditionalist, apolitical and easily kept at bay; a smaller but energetic and influential segment is made up of Islamist-minded college graduates and religious leaders who form the cadre of the MB; and there is an even smaller element of educated activists, some the backbone of the pro-democracy Kifaya, others more Marxist-oriented, who seek secular alternatives.
The Mubarak regime's strategy for maintaining power thus has four elements - control the masses through subsidies and state propaganda, hold down the Islamists but keep the them visible for Western eyes, do everything to prevent the emergence of a secular alternative to Mubarak rule, and funnel excess anger toward Palestinian radicalism while playing the role of mediator on the international stage. It is a formula for staying in power that Mubarak has perfected. There is no reason for U.S. policy to do anything to assist this modern Pharaoh in maintaining it.
In formulating a new U.S. policy on Egypt, curbs on radical Islamists could be accepted on the grounds that their rise would mean the end of all freedom in Egypt, but the government's suppression of true democratic activism must come to an end. There is no other way a genuinely pluralistic and stable political culture can develop in the country. Mubarak's regime ensures that the only domestic outlet is in the mosques, which in Egypt are dominated either by state-employed imams, who have no credibility, or Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated imams, who stir radicalism. That is a formula for radicalism without end. The U.S. must see through Mubarak's game, and say kifaya! to our Egyptian "friends." Enough indeed.