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The Egyptian protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak failed to change the underlying realities of military domination, entrenched anti-Semitism, and limited foreign policy options

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The sun setting over the Nile Sunday night. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
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Burning Bush

The mass uprising in Egypt that seems set to overthrow the Mubarak regime is the latest test of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. The U.S. and Israel are hoping it works out better than the previous three.

Hosni Mubarak was not a good guy, nor was he a particularly clever man. He jailed peaceful opponents and led a security establishment that tortured innocents. He ruled Egypt for over 30 years, which is far too long by anyone’s standards. It is to the credit of the Egyptian people, often regarded as slavish, that they rebelled against this indignity.

But one question still remains: What were they fighting for?

This weekend, Egypt reopened the Rafah crossing into the Gaza strip, which is perhaps a sign that it is time for a reassessment of Egypt’s recent revolution and the legacy of the man it brought down. Hosni Mubarak was considered a U.S. ally because he shared many of our country’s stated interests, including stopping Hamas, a group despised by Mubarak and his security chief, Omar Suleiman. The two men stood against the armed Palestinian resistance movement because they feared their own Muslim Brotherhood, a like-minded counterpart to Hamas, and Iranian expansion, which they saw as a by-product of Hamas’ power.

But Mubarak’s Egypt is no more—the military still rules as it did behind the veneer of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, but Cairo can no longer afford to be a stable U.S. ally. Mubarak has been charged with the capital crime of killing protesters during the revolution, along with assorted lesser crimes. The question then is whether the reportedly ailing Mubarak will die before the state can execute him—maybe it will be done quietly or perhaps, with a flourish, in the middle of Tahrir Square. Egypt’s rulers will spill the blood of Mubarak and his sons when they have nothing else with which to satisfy the hunger of the revolution—which is happening in the middle of an economic crisis that will make it difficult to feed a country of 83 million people.

Maybe someday there will be an accounting of all the fictions that determined our understanding of the Egyptian revolution as it unfolded. In retrospect, it is strange that an American intellectual and political class proved so credulous during the uprising. The Egyptian media and government officials are well-known for a casual relationship with the truth, as well as a tradition of anti-Semitism in the government-owned and independent presses. It was Egyptian officials who claimed that a shark attack on German tourists in the Sinai was engineered by the Mossad, a fable regarded by the U.S. intelligentsia as darkly humorous evidence of an abnormally thwarted culture incapable of distinguishing between reality and a bogeyman engendered by fearful, childish, systemic anti-Semitism.

And yet the international media took every word that came out of the Egyptian street during the revolution as the absolute truth. For instance, there was the notion that the violence of the revolution resulted from Mubarak’s order for the police to leave their posts and throw open the jails. That such an order would be followed throughout the chain of command would be a remarkable feat in a country not known for its bureaucratic efficiency. It seemed not to occur to reporters and policymakers that in the midst of general chaos—and Egypt is chaotic in its nature—many policemen may have simply left their posts for fear of being overrun by revolutionary mobs.

The people who fought with the police in the streets those first few nights seem to have been the same who later turned to violence against the demonstrators as well as the press. But this, too, was blamed on Mubarak, for these people were assumed to be thugs in his hire, as were the men who rode the horses and camels down from the Pyramids. Maybe, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, it really was pro-Mubarak thugs responsible for the violence against the international press, but there are plenty of other Egyptian outfits hostile to free media, like the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Kristof, however, the Muslim Brotherhood is no worse than the Republican party. Pro-Mubarak thugs were even blamed for the rising tide of violence in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Mubarak was faulted for the anti-Semitism in the Egyptian media and for empowering Islamists while crushing the liberal movement. The facts, sadly, are otherwise. It is true that Mubarak had thrown certain liberals in jail, like the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, but the former president is hardly responsible the absence of a genuine liberal culture in Egypt. Mubarak did not empower Islamists; he fought them tooth and nail for two decades, and they tried to kill him in Sudan. The reason that the Muslim Brotherhood still exists in spite of Mubarak’s ruthlessness is that Islamism is a powerful political current that represents the flower of Arab modernity and will always have a constituency in Muslim-majority countries. Nor is Mubarak responsible for anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press: The unpleasant reality is that the country and the surrounding region would be anti-Semitic if Mubarak had never been born.

None of these facts seemed to matter—not to the revolutionaries, of course, but neither to the U.S. intelligentsia, even as the narrative fit a familiar pattern. During the revolution, Mubarak came to play the role that Israel and the United States typically play in Egypt: He was the source of all evil. It is only now, as dissatisfaction with the army mounts, that the Egyptian revolutionaries are coming to recognize that the army they welcomed in Tahrir as brothers have always held the real power in Cairo.

The strange fact is that Mubarak was a reformer. Or at least he was considered so by the World Bank and the IMF, which gave Egypt high rankings over the last half decade. The army shared a common goal with the revolutionaries in bringing down Mubarak because it, too, did not want the president’s son Gamal to succeed him, lest he take a cut out of their lucrative business enterprises.

Since the country’s 2004 economic reforms, spearheaded by Gamal Mubarak and his band of technocrats, the country’s economy grew at an average of 7 percent annually. While the common charge is that the country’s economic miracle didn’t trickle down to the lower classes, the inequality index held steady. Moreover, it is not the rural or urban poor who engineered the revolution, but rather a large segment of middle-class youth enjoying the economic upturn who took to the streets on behalf, as they claimed, of all Egypt.

It’s fine if we want to chuck out IMF and World Bank benchmarks for reform, but if we are going to judge a country’s political system according to how many people social media networkers can put on the streets then that is going to mean something different for U.S. Middle East policy. In the case of Egypt, it means American taxpayers are expected to pick up the tab for someone else’s street theater.

The $2 billion that Washington has been giving Cairo every year for 30 years is essentially a bribe to convince Egypt not to shoot itself in the head by going to war with Israel. But the problem isn’t just that 1981 money doesn’t cover 2011 bills. Since the revolution, tourism, one of the country’s major sources of revenue, is way down due to the instability and ongoing violence, including several attacks against Coptic Christians, and $13 billion in foreign exchange reserves has fled the country. Egypt is not going to woo back foreign investors at this point, not just because of instability but because the policy is associated with the once-ruling family now on trial for its life.

So, how does Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, feed itself if prices continue to rise because of a severe drought in China, the world’s largest exporter of wheat? Egypt’s new rulers need to show—by opening up Rafah, letting Iranian ships pass through the Suez Canal, brokering a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah—what a new Egypt could look like, one that would threaten to spin dangerously out of the U.S. orbit unless the Americans pay up.

This gambit is nothing new for Egypt, which performed the same ballet under Gamal Nasser during the early years of the Cold War. Nasser used the United States and the USSR against each other to get what he wanted—prestige, power, and American money. It worked even after he concluded the 1955 deal for Czech (i.e., Soviet) arms. Sure, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to fund Nasser’s Aswan Dam project, for which the Soviets eventually footed the bill. But in 1956, Washington still thought highly enough of Nasser to demand that their British, French, and Israeli allies withdraw their invasionary forces from Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Only in the aftermath of the 1973 war with Israel did Egypt, now under Anwar Sadat, ally itself with the United States, a deal that Mubarak kept faithfully for 30 years.

Of course there is no longer a superpower rivalry, which is good for U.S. strategy in the big picture. But Egypt’s brinksmanship will still present plenty of headaches. Iran is not going to give the Egyptians money; and even if the Saudis don’t renege on the $4 billion they’ve promised Cairo, that’s hardly enough. The only place to turn is Washington, but the $1 billion in debt relief and the other billion in investment we’ve promised is evidence we don’t have the cash either.

Without bread, Egypt will turn to spectacles, and so the Mubaraks will probably hang. And after Egypt has purged itself of that evil, it will turn again to the evil that has plagued the Egyptian imagination since 1948: the Zionists and their backer in Washington. Cairo, say Western rationalists in the press and policy circles, knows it would lose any war with Israel and does not want to forfeit that $2 billion a year from the United States. But there are many other factors that will shape the thinking in Cairo in the months and years to come, and there is nothing rational about a society whose authorities believe that the Mossad exerts secret mind-control over sharks.

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Carl says:

The only one surprised by how the “Arab spring” has turned out are Western Liberals who’s firmest belief is that everyone in the world has the same motivations and has the same desires.

Sandy says:

I hope the West wakes up before it’s too late!

‘Fill it with water and split it”. Hydrogen
Graphic Commentaries on the Middle East

Jake says:

The G8 has already pledged some $20 Billion to Egypt and Tunisia for some type of reforms. The IMF and the World Bank said they would help as well. Most likely very few if any strings attached. Folks keep on tripping on those strings and who needs that?

The West continues to foolishy think that Western style democracy will work in Arab nations. Just look at all the goodness it has provided to these folks in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Karzai is such a stand up guy!! The West will plow tons and tons of money and not bat an eye when Hamas does something stupid or Iran wants to play in the sandbox. From an ally perspective, I wouldn’t expect anything better than what the US gets from other strong allies such as Pakistan.

Bring on the Arab Summer!!

Frank Messmann says:

When I was in Egypt the well-educated guide said that during the war between Egypt and Israel, local Jews sided with the Israelis. If so, then once-again we see, sadly, that anti-Semitism, as George Soros once pointed out, is often the result of Jewish behavior.

dar says:

The WH didnt fail to understand – they misled the public again

Clapper set the tome to say all is secular

Obama doctrine = rise of Muslim Brotherhood

This explains a lot about the President’s actions and inactions..

MSM is blind to this.

Bunch of fools who think there’s any spring – just watch winter come soon.

Deborah says:

to Frank Messmann:

What? Of course those Jews sided with Israelis. Perhaps for self-preservation they should have been discreet about those feelings, but are you saying that Egyptians’ many decades of antisemitism is because of Jewish Egyptians’ behavior? And George Soros is sadly wrong here. Unless one includes in “Jewish behavior” simply being Jewish, (or supporting the existence of Israel) antisemitism has not been the result of Jewish behavior. In fact, it has often existed without the presence of Jews.

ellie says:

What about what the Eqyptian spring has done to women?

Bill R. says:

Most Americans were NOT gullible regarding the Egyptian revolution. The American administration however, is a much different story. I’m not sure if they just closed their eyes to the completely obvious or if it was on purpose for some nefarious reason.

Lawrence says:

It isn’t about gullibility, it is about ignorance.

Why are the American people so “Ignorant” about this Egyptian revolution?

Aaron Nafthali says:

Heh. So, Frank, do you also feel that racism is a result of Black people’s behavior? Do you feel that every ethnic group is a monolith, to which you can refer as though it were a single individual?

Are you really as stupid and hateful as you sound, or worse?


AzA says:

Not all of us were so gullible or ignorant.

FeralCat says:

Barack Hussein Obama enabled the Muslim Brotherhood (later day Nazis) to come in.

Frank, your name is quite apropos: man, what a mess! I mean, quoting a hideous moral pygmy like Soros, who feels no remorse for betraying his people to the Nazis so he could steal their belongings? How do you have the nerve to even type this stuff?

the permanent newbie says:

Not to mention also that by 1967, Egypt was effectively Judenrein – the Jewish population had been driven out in a fit of revenge and pique in 1948. Which I’m sure Frank would “understand.” How would he feel if a single Arab were deported from Israel for any reason?

Barry says:

That’s good Frank. Thanks for that.

So according to George Soros all this stupidity about “Islamophobia” can finally be behind us.

The blood-crazed American Muslim community danced in the street on 9/11 as commanded in the Quran. Acting according to Shari’ah they violently protested the War On Islam we waged in Afghanistan and Mesopotamia.

And according to you and George Soros, if you dissent then its okay to ethnically cleanse the dissenters? Great!

We used to say: “Dissent is Patriotic”. But George Soros says, according to you, “Dissent should be punished with ethnic cleansing of the dissenters”.

Colt says:

to Frank Messmann:

The Jewish population in Egypt at that time was around several thousand and the non-Jewish population in Egypt at that time was around 60 million. And there were no Jews in government positions. So how were any Egyptian Jews able to exert any influence in Egypt during the war? And besides this, how do you know that the statement of your “well-educated guide” was accurate? Maybe he/she was just repeating anti-Jewish propaganda.

Diana Hughes says:

A very good article with which I agree nearly 100 per cent. I do not believe though that Mr Mubarak was a”bad Man”. He was far from that. He cared deeply for his people and when he became President, he insisted that his Ministers did not become corrupt. He did not seek to promote himself as he was very modest. He lived an exemplary private life and in these days when public figures appear to indulge in extra marital affairs he is a breath of fresh air. He did not push his wife forward or his children. He said his wife was Mrs Mubarak and that his sons were not the children of the President but just two ordinary boys. He did not flaunt himself buying big yachts and cars or any other badge of ostentation. He was kind and had a good sense of humour. It is a pity he is having to go through this terrible time and that his health is so bad. I hope that he will NOT be executed or sent to jail. He has suffered enough. Let him go.

Beatrix says:

Mubarak took our money and kept the peace with Israel, but he allowed no contact between his people and the Israelis and so while he kept the peace, he also kept the hate alive.

It’s not surprising that the Egyptians attacked Lara Logan as soon as someone called her a Jew, which she isn’t. She’s pretty; some of the men in the crowd wanted to rape her and in order to prevent intervention, they called her a Jew so the other men joined in rather than defend her.

And of course the Jews would not have been vocal about support for Israel during the war, even if they felt it. What absolute nonsense! The guide’s statement was pure propaganda.

I’m not sure if Soros is real; he’s such a stereotype of the self-hating Jew.

‘We are slaves of our own conquers’
Graphic Commentaries on the Middle East

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The Egyptian protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak failed to change the underlying realities of military domination, entrenched anti-Semitism, and limited foreign policy options

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