What the U.S. Loses if Mubarak Goes

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

A protester shouts during a demonstration in Cairo on Jan. 30, 2011

The revolt that appears to have fatally undermined President Hosni Mubarak's prospects for remaining in power is a domestic affair — Egyptians have taken to the streets to demand change because of economic despair and political tyranny, not the regime's close relationship with Israel and the U.S. But having tolerated and abetted Mubarak's repressive rule for three decades precisely because of his utility to U.S. strategy on issues ranging from Israel to Iran, Washington could be deprived of a key Arab ally with his fall from power.

"The birth pangs of a new Middle East" was then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's description of the bombs falling on Beirut in 2006 as Israel and Hizballah traded blows in an inconclusive war, but her words more aptly describe the convulsions currently shaking Egypt. Rice's vision of an alliance of Israeli and Arab autocrats crushing Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah proved to be a chimera, but Mubarak's ouster could change the regional order in ways quite at odds with that vision.

The situation in Egypt remains dangerously fluid, its outcome still difficult to predict. But even if the duration and terms of the inevitable transition are unknown, five days of dramatic street demonstrations have effectively called time on the strongman's 30-year rule. Even the Obama Administration appears to be distancing itself from a leader that Washington has long hailed as a pillar of regional stability. The White House has stopped short of demanding that Mubarak resign, but it has called for "an orderly transition" to "a democratic participatory government," and for Egypt's U.S.-funded security forces to refrain from violence against protesters. Heeding those calls would effectively consign Mubarak to political oblivion. And even if he tried to fight his way out of the crisis, the autocrat's ability to serve as a bastion of stability would be fatally compromised. In the space of less than a week, a central pillar of U.S. regional strategy has become an untenable ruler.

The man most likely to replace Mubarak if the political process is thrown open looks to be Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning former nuclear inspector who has been endorsed as a presidential candidate by the country's smaller secular parties and, importantly, by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition party. ElBaradei is a moderate and a democrat, but he doesn't share Washington's allergy to Islamist parties and has publicly questioned the Obama Administration's strategy on Iran's nuclear program.

Curiously enough, years before the current turmoil, Washington was warned that it could expect a difficult transition after Mubarak, even if his succession were handled within the regime. "Whoever Egypt's next president is, he will inevitably be politically weaker than Mubarak," reads a remarkably prescient May 2007 cable from the U.S. embassy in Cairo that was released late last year by WikiLeaks. "Among his first priorities will be to cement his position and build popular support. We can thus anticipate that the new president may sound an initial anti-American tone in his public rhetoric in an effort to prove his nationalist bona fides to the Egyptian street."

The cable also warns that any new President will have to bolster his support by reconciling with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. If all of this was true for what was then anticipated to be an in-house transition, it may be even more so now that the citizenry has demanded a say in the matter. It's not that the rebellion is being fueled by anti-Americanism or radical Islamist sentiments; it's a protest driven by the Egyptians' economic and political needs. The U.S. is viewed with hostility among the demonstrators first and foremost because of its longtime support for a tyrannical regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood may be in the "radical" column of Rice's schema, but Egypt's democracy movement doesn't see the party that way. "The Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with the Iranian movement, has nothing to do with extremism as we have seen it in Afghanistan and other places," ElBaradei said over the weekend. He called the Brotherhood a conservative group that favors secular democracy and human rights and said that as an integral part of Egyptian society, it would have a place in any inclusive political process.

Israel has looked on aghast as its most important friend in the region tumbles — with the U.S. doing little to save him. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly reached out to Washington and European capitals to urge them to ease off on criticism of the Egyptian leader, whose ouster would bring instability to the wider region. It's highly unlikely that any new Egyptian government would go to war with Israel, but an administration more responsive to its own citizenry than Mubarak would almost certainly cool relations. Mubarak's role as the go-to guy when the U.S. and Israel want to pressure the Palestinians into new talks, for example, is unlikely to be reprised by a successor. Nor can Israel count on Egypt's continued cooperation in imposing an economic siege on Gaza, which is aimed at unseating the territory's Hamas rulers.

If Israel is alarmed, so is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who on Saturday phoned Mubarak to express his solidarity and whose security forces blocked demonstrations in support of the Egyptian protests. Mubarak has been an important source of political cover for Abbas in his dealings with Israel and the U.S., and has kept the pressure on Hamas in Gaza. And the Palestinian leader, who presides over a less-than-democratic administration, can't be thrilled by the Egyptians' example to Palestinians of the power of mass protest.

None of the region's moderate autocrats can be particularly reassured by the Obama Administration's perceived willingness to wave goodbye to an Egyptian autocrat whose 30 years of service to U.S. regional agendas had the likes of Vice President Joe Biden just last week reiterating how important Mubarak's contribution had been.

Syria and Iran, of course, are celebrating the travails of one of their fiercest Arab antagonists — even if the type of popular rebellion that has rocked Mubarak could at some point come to the streets of Damascus and Tehran. Indeed, the Egyptian rebellion may stand as the ultimate negation of the Bush Administration's "moderates vs. radicals" approach to the region: Mubarak's ouster might be a loss for the moderate camp, but it won't necessarily translate into a gain for the radicals. Instead, it marks a new assertiveness by an Arab public looking to take charge of its own affairs, rather than have them determined by international power struggles. Even that, however, suggests turbulent times ahead for American Middle East policies that have little support on Egypt's streets.