The recent explosion of anger from Muslims throughout the Middle East and North Africa is a fascinating story, full of complexity and significance to the United States. The dictatorial Arab/Muslim leaders throughout the world have been traditionally secular but cultivate Islamic extremism in order to gain some measure of power over their increasingly radicalized populations. To various degrees, they exploit anger at Israel, the United States, Russia and as many Western “boogeymen” as they can find. They routinely oppress women, homosexuals and minorities, pander to the most violent and ancient resentments among their populations (such as medieval anti-Semitism taught in some Muslim schools), and appropriate large percentages of oil and natural resource-driven wealth for their own corrupt use. This is true in Egypt today where the Obama administration faces its Jimmy Carter moment and must decide how best to handle the possible overthrow of a secular Muslim dictator.
In nations such as Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, leaders are finally hearing anger from their citizenry, anger that has been simmering for generations. In many ways, the indignation is righteous. For example, Egypt has received the most attention from the media focus on recent Muslim uprisings. Egypt summarizes the classic foreign policy dilemma facing the United States, namely the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. President Hosni Mubarak comfortably plays the role of the devil we know. He, at times, tolerates Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, panders to angry youth by allowing state-run media to televise vile anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda, and publishes school texts with terrible anti-Israel and anti-West lies. In fact, in a comically albeit sad statement on Egyptian control, just weeks before the outbreak of violence, official Egyptian analysis of a recent uptick in shark attacks in the Sinai region was that Israel’s MOSSAD was training sharks to attack Egyptians.
However, Egypt is also a major ally of the United States. It receives the second most foreign aid from the US, cooperates with US military and intelligence requests, and the Egyptian government has no real plan to attack Israel. In fact, Egypt acts aggressively, at times, against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Mubarak has no love lost for Hamas, which it feels is a destabilizing factor on its border.
Thus, as I watch powerful images on television of young protesters raging against the utterly corrupt Mubarak regime, I feel torn between my heart and my mind. Do I enjoy the fact that after an unimaginably long period of time, Muslims are finally realizing their leaders are not interested in the wellbeing of their people? Absolutely yes.
The problem is the devil we don’t know. The economic and unemployment struggles of Egypt have undoubtedly served as the proverbial final straw on the camel. However, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a dangerously fundamentalist organization, are cultivating the justifiable anger against what they would say is a corrupt, secular and Western-leaning Mubarak regime. It is impossible no know how strong the Brotherhood is because of the corrupt elections that are held in Egypt. However, we know that they are a well-organized and well-funded organization and if there is any type of power vacuum in Egypt, they are well positioned to take control. The “X” factor is the Egyptian military, which is traditionally a secular organization. It is an open question as to where their allegiance will go in an increasingly chaotic environment.
This is indeed the rub. There just is very little tradition of liberty in the Muslim universe, with Indonesia as a rare example of Muslims seeking out more freedom and liberty for themselves. Much of the rage we see is the manifestation of anger at the overly Western and secular Mubarak regime. Iran recognizes this and has even publically voiced its support for the possible revolution. Moreover, the radical group A.N.S.W.E.R., which has vocally supported Islamic terror in the past, is also staging marches in support of the Egyptian protesters.
It is true that among the protesters are some moderate or even secular reformers who crave a freer Egypt, such as Muhammad al Baradei and others. However, they appear to be a minority. If total revolution were to take place, it is more likely that an Islamic-focused majority led by the Muslim Brotherhood would seize the reigns of power. It is my prediction that Mubarak will desperately try to bring the more secular protesters into his new government in his bid to retain power.
Thus, my head tells me to be very scared at the possibility of a successful revolution in Egypt. President George W. Bush, influenced by thinkers such as Anatoly Sharansky among others believed that all people, be they Arab or otherwise, have a natural and G-d given drive to be free. If allowed the chance, Muslims would seize upon the opportunity for liberty and self-governance.
Unfortunately, for both the West and Muslims around the world, this does not seem to be the case. If we have learned anything from our heroic and selfless attempts to liberate Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and countless other examples, it is that the drive to be free simply does not trump pragmatic decision-making and tribal affiliations, in addition to the desire of many Muslims to live in a Sharia-dominated society. While we have seen some success in Iraq, it was extraordinarily painful and hard-fought.
This is why I have come to the opinion that strong secular militaristic leaders are what the Muslim world knows and expects. We know this devil; he is/was present in Pakistan (until Musharaff left and now Pakistan is crumbling), Egypt (for now), Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. We have learned how to work with them to further US interests. Indeed, even Israel has learned to work with these dictators to ensure long-term stability. The instability that would arise from a successful revolution in Egypt is a far-greater threat to the West than is Mubarak’s Army and that stability in a universe devoid of liberty or even the longing for it is better than chaos.
Interestingly, the Obama Administration shares this opinion, at least publically. The US is predictably calling for calm and respect for the life and safety of the protestors. However, they back the Mubarak regime and will continue to due so during the protests. And while I support the President’s team in its efforts with Egypt, I strongly believe President Obama failed utterly in his lack of support for the Iranian protests that occurred some months ago. Iran is an example of a nation in which no amount of chaos can trump the depth of evil and sadism showed by the modern Iranian regime. There were many who rightly criticized the President for his lack of support for the Iranian freedom fighters and there are now rumors that President Obama and his foreign policy team have been in contact with some of the leaders of the protests in Egypt. If so, this is troubling as it makes me wonder if he is trying to make up for his error in Iran and if so, is guilty of violating the rule that states two wrongs do not make a right. Egypt is different than Iran and if the US is to play a role in the ending of the Mubarak dynasty, it must do so in a way that ensures we do not see the rise of an Islamic regime, much like what followed the overthrow of the Shah of Iran.