We’re coming up on two weeks of unrest in Egypt, and I’m getting the feeling that we’re getting close to the breaking point. Fairly soon, I think, Mubarak will either crack down decisively on the dissenters, or step down.
I’ve been very tentative about the whole situation, refusing to whole-heartedly endorse the anti-Mubarak movement. This has led to some of The Usual Suspects to accuse me of backing Mubarak against a nascent democratic revolution.
This, naturally, pisses me off. I’ve spent way too many years stating my own opinions to need anyone — especially those people — to try to tell me what I think.
The mess in Egypt has me troubled, but also ambivalent. I really don’t have a side here.
On the one hand, the protesters are trying to get rid of a dictator — the default form of government in a Muslim nation. Mubarak has been in power for over 30 years, and it’s been my rule of thumb that anyone who holds power in a nation for more than a decade is most likely not a result of a democratic process. And make no mistake, Mubarak is no “benevolent despot,” but has kept the reins of power through the standard tyrannical means. So yeah, he should go.
On the other hand, as far as dictators go, Mubarak is fairly small potatoes. He’s no Kim Jung Il, no Saddam Hussein, no Fidel Castro. (Well, he might be kind of close to Castro.) He’s certainly no Stalin or Hilter. When a lot of dictators tend to have expansionist ambitions, Mubarak has been a stabilizing presence in the region.
Plus, there’s the factor that popular uprisings in Muslim nations — even those in the name of “democracy” — tend to end very poorly. Iran’s revolution started out that way, and look where we are now 30-odd years later. Hamas took over Gaza in a free and democratic election. Hezbollah is now the main power in Lebanon, partly through free and fair democratic elections (combined with a tendency among those who get in their way to blow up). The largest opposition group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that assassinated Mubarak’s predecessor (and wounded him in the attack) and is the spiritual and metaphorical father of Hamas, Al Qaeda, and numerous other terrorist groups.
So, what the hell should the US do?
There’s one factor about the protests that gives me a suggestion for the best course we should follow, and that’s a case of a dog not barking in the night.
In all the protests we’ve seen so far, there has been one element that has not been seen. One element that is almost always present in mass demonstrations in the Muslim world is absent in this case — and I find that very encouraging.
There is no blatant anti-Americanism on display.
No shouts of “Death To America,” no burning of American flags, no denunciations of America The Great Satan and the West.
Yeah, there’s a strong anti-Israeli element in the protests, and a lot of the protesters aren’t that fond of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, but that’s pretty much to be expected. There’s no typical anti-Americanism on display here, and I’m liking that.
I think that the US has two choices here (well, technically three). We can go all in and back one side or the other to the hilt, almost to the point of direct intervention. We can pick one side and give them full diplomatic and logistical and material support, throwing our full weight behind one side or another and fuly ally and identify with either Mubarak or the protesters.
Or, even better, take as much of a “hands off” approach to the whole thing. Just step back and let the Egyptians work it out among themselves.
The reasoning is simple: right now, the Egyptians aren’t that interested in what the US says or does. If we start meddling in a half-assed way, then we draw attention to the fact that we spent decades buddying up to Mubarak (pissing off the protesters) and then abandoned him in his our of need (pissing off Mubarak). It’s a lose-lose scenario. The only way to actively turn that around would to step in at this critical juncture and decisively help one side or another to prevail.
Which runs the risk of backing the losing side, and thoroughly alienating the winner.
Plus, we must take into account President Obama. So far, his foreign policy can be best summed up as “kiss up to our enemies and piss off our friends.” The current trend seems to be to punish those who’ve helped us in the past, possibly as an extension of Obama’s self-determined role to be the “anti-Bush.” That means that those nations that helped him are seen as “pro-Bush,” and therefore anti-Obama.
Further, the one defining element of Obama’s foreign policy has been to reject anything that might be seen as aggressive or forceful. If he were to threaten to intervene in Egypt, no one would take him seriously. (Unlike Bush, who had actually carried out those types of declarations.) He simply doesn’t have it in him to order and sustain such an action.
So, no, the only realistic option for the US here is “hands off.” We should avoid coming down too firmly for either side, recognize that this is a matter for Egypt to work out on its own, and prepare to make nice with whichever side prevails.
Because, let’s face it — with Obama as president, we really don’t have any better options.