Some pundits are comparing the situation in Egypt to the dilemma faced by President Carter when Iranians suddenly brought down the Shah in a revolt that virtually no one saw coming. At that time there was pressure on President Carter to support the Shah, even though the protesters wanted freedom and democracy, not oppressive dictatorship.
Iran, however, was a pillar ally to the US in the region. Bordering the Soviet Union, it was the regional power, receiving massive amounts of US military aid. It protected Persian Gulf oil from the Soviets or anyone else who might want to control or disrupt the oil fields. Iran is not Arab, and though Islam is the primary religion, the Shah was anti-religious, thinking only the weak minded needed such a crutch. As such he brutally put down religious extremists, and was a good friend to Israel. Losing Iran meant that suddenly Persian gulf oil was vulnerable and the regional powerhouse upon which US Mideast foreign policy depended became a potential adversary.
We know what happened next. The Shah fell, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the most prominent face of the opposition, became leader. The Iranians stormed the US embassy and took the Americans there hostage. Khomeini used anti-Americanism to grip power even tighter (one of the first things the Obama Administration did when Egypt fell into disarray is to greatly reinforce security at the US embassy in Egypt). In 1980 Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and that sealed the deal. The religious fundamentalist government could say “you may disagree with us, but we have to come together to defeat the Arab invaders.” In the eight years that war went in, the clerics coalesced power and shaped what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Egypt there is another foreign policy priority at stake: Mideast peace. When Israel was formed in 1948 the Arab peoples were angry. They didn’t mind Jews living there, but they didn’t want what they considered to be Arab land taken and turned into a Jewish state. Four wars and 25 years later Israel had expanded its borders, and was occupying the West Bank (formerly controlled by Jordan), Gaza and the Sinai pennisula (formerly held by Egypt). At that point Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided that just or not, Israel existed and that fact could not be overturned with military power. Rather than to condemn young people to continual (and pointless) war he made a deal: peace for land. Egypt got the Sinai back, Israel promised to work on a deal for the West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt formally recognized Israel and became an ally.
Since Egypt was the dominant Arab military, this made another Arab-Israeli war impossible, ending that cycle of wars. Israel couldn’t annex the occupied territories because that would give Arabs a majority in the Jewish state — they could vote it out of existence. But they haven’t been able to figure out what to do, and the situation has festered for nearly 45 years.
The alliance with Egypt took pressure off Israel to make a deal over the West Bank and Gaza. In the ensuing years frustration at being occupied and denied basic rights turned into anger, hate and violence. Groups like Hamas formed against the corruption in the Palestinian authority, and neighboring Syria joined with Iran to back the Lebanese group Hezbollah, creating new dangers for the Israeli state. Suicide bombers terrorized Israelis, as Palestinians lashed out against their occupation. But as long as Egypt and Israel are allies, total war is impossible. For 35 years Israel and Egypt have gotten the lion’s share of US foreign aid, most of it military. This year’s share for Egypt is $1.5 billion.
As was the case with Iran, there is an Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Egypt. In Egypt it is Islamic Brotherhood. Started in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, it sought to promote the creation of a pure Islamic state. Islam was not a strong political force in the early days. Egypt’s first President, Abdul Nasser, came to power by joining other military officers in overthrowing King Faruk in 1952. He espoused a kind of Arab Socialism, a non-Marxist non-aligned ideal of promoting Arab values. He died in 1970, and replaced by Anwar Sadat. Sadat was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 1981 because of his deal with Israel. Hosni Mubarak has been in power ever since.
Most foreign policy elite are used to the Egypt of Sadat and the early days of Mubarak. Egypt’s government allows people to live relatively free lives and do business as long as they do not threaten political instability. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned (though some members do run as independents and get into the parliament). Most citizens were satisfied that elections were being held, and though dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, some opposition was allowed. But in the last election, in 2005, the NDP got 80% of the votes and Mubarak near 90%. Effective opposition is not allowed.
The demographic trends I talked about two weeks ago conspire with the increasing ease of gaining information and organizing opposition to make this Egypt very different than the one foreign policy elites are accustomed to. This is a new generation, a new century. They are not satisfied with relative stability, and given rising food costs and increasing poverty (in part because of the population growth), there is a desire for change that goes far beyond groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s government — like those in much of the rest of the Arab world — has become obsolete. Obsolete governments can hang on, sometimes for quite awhile, but sooner or later reality gets to them. Trying to maintain the status quo by helping Mubarak will at best succeed for only a short time.
Yet the idea that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power like the clerics in Iran and set up a radical Islamic state is not a probable outcome. Egyptians do not want to be like Iran, or like Saudi Arabia, and there is no reason to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood can do there what the Ayatollahs did in Iran. Sunni Islam has a different sense of politics than does Shi’ite (Egyptians are Sunni, the Iranians are Shi’ite), and the Muslim Brotherhood does not provide the ‘face of the opposition’ by Khomeini did. Indeed, the protesters are mostly unaligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Iran has oil, it had the resources to be more independent. Any new government in Egypt has to deal with the problems of poverty and economic weakness. The US and the EU will be in a position to make deals that the Egyptians cannot simply reject.
If one reads the alarmists, something which I labeled in my last post a “worst case scenario” gets put forth as if it’s likely. War will break out, oil prices will skyrocket, a new Islamic state will emerge and further radicalize the Arab world! Perhaps, but not likely. Those who want to fear Islam see the worst case scenario as more likely than it is, just as those who yearn for change in Egypt see the best case scenario as more likely than it is.
Egypt is not Iran. History has yet to be written. The US can’t shape events, but how we and our allies react to them will help guide the trajectory of history. So far the Obama administration has done the right things and adopted the right tone — President George H.W. Bush’s former Secretary of State James Baker made that point publicly. The test, however, is yet to come. As protesters and “pro-Mubarak thugs” fight it out in Tahir square, the diplomats have to get ready to be creative and innovative as they move into uncharted territory. That’s probably something they’ll need to get used to.