Walter Russell Mead: The Egyptian revolution goes off-script

Water Russell Mead (see also his earlier entry here) blogs on Egypt:

The Egyptian government has survived the first crisis of the revolution and both the government and the protesters are moving to a new trial of strength.  Surviving the first blast of popular fury — and of international criticism — is an important milestone for the government.  The longer it can hold out, the more likely it is that the core power centers of the Egyptian regime — the ‘deep state’ as the Turks say — will survive the Mubarak era and dominate the country for some time to come.

I am not sure what to wish for.  The current Egyptian system in many ways has overstayed its welcome and the economic, political and social development of the country has been seriously affected.  Revolutions, though, however thoroughly justified, have their drawbacks.  Both the major revolutions of the English speaking world, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776, ended unusually well.  Those revolutions, however, were the exception that proves the rule.  The outcome of other revolutions has been less unambiguously good.

The French Revolution, for example, quickly degenerated into the Reign of Terror and culminated in the military dictatorship of the “Emperor” Napoleon and a generation of brutal war.  The liberals of the February Revolution in Russia lost out to the mindlessly bloody and destructive Bolsheviks ten months later, and Russia plunged into an unspeakable civil war and the genocidal horrors of Leninist/Stalinist rule.  China’s revolutionary communists killed scores of millions of people through their grotesque mixture of brutality, fanaticism and incompetence.  The clergy of Iran turned on their allies, leading the country into the horrifying and pointless war with Iraq and establishing a regime worse than anything the Shah could have dreamed of.

I do not know what will happen in Egypt; no one does.  Most revolutions do not go on to the radical stage; they fail at an earlier era.  If the forces of order withstand the first dramatic assaults, they are often well positioned to grind their enemies down.  The Revolution of 1848 failed almost everywhere in Europe — except in France when it brought in another dictatorship and another Napoleon.

Tahrir Square, downtown Cairo – February 2, 2011 (twitpic/AJE Live)

But whether the Egyptian Revolution succeeds or fails, it does not seem headed for 1688 or 1776.  The liberal and enlightened forces in Egypt, real and inspiring though they are (and I’ve met many wonderful Egyptians), are too weak and too inexperienced to have much chance of holding onto power when and if the government crumbles away.  Egypt’s problems are too daunting, its militants too strong and too well organized, its civil society is too deeply divided between Islamists and liberals, and its civic and religious life has been too deeply wounded to make the emergence of moderate, forward-looking and constructive governance look likely right now.  There is nothing wrong with hoping that something better may come — and I do — but hope is not a plan.

It is generally difficult in revolutionary situations to interpret events clearly.  Through the smoke and noise, it appears at this point that while the personal power of President Mubarak has eroded, the heart of the military power structure in the country is still intact.  President Mubarak appears to be negotiating for a dignified exit (perhaps including some financial and legal guarantees) while all around him the Egyptian power structures are trying to ensure their own survival at a chaotic time.

At the moment there is a standoff.  Mubarak didn’t flee in a helicopter, the junior officers and the troops have so far remained loyal to the generals, and the police retreated but they have not disappeared.  The television and radio stations are firmly in government hands; the streets belong to the revolution.[…]

In revolution, momentum matters.  In a poor country like Egypt, mass demonstrations cannot continue indefinitely.  The middle class can stay in the streets, but the poorer people need to feed their families.  A few days’ pay is all that stands between many families in Egypt and hunger.  Beyond that, the kind of excitement that gives people the courage to defy authorities and risk death depends on an emotional surge that tends to fade as time drags on.

The Egyptian authorities needed to stall for time and slow down the clock.  That they seem to have done; if they can hold the line, the regime (though not the Mubarak family) has a reasonable prospect of riding out the storm or of forcing a longer term stalemate.

Stalled revolutions often produce temporary, halfway regimes in which elements of the old power structure and leaders of the popular protest movements — neither strong enough to rule without the other — try to govern together.  Both still hope to gain (or hold on to) total control, so they are rivals as much as they are partners in government.  These arrangements are extremely unstable; hard-liners in both camps are waiting for the opportunity to destroy their opponents and gain exclusive power.

There is no iron law about how this process works out.  Sometimes the old regime recovers; the unrest gradually dies down, the army stays loyal and the day comes when the pre-revolutionary regime (often the same forces with a new leader) reasserts itself.  This happened over much of Europe when the revolutions of 1848 fizzled out.  It happened again after World War One when communist attempts to seize power in countries like Germany and Hungary led to the return of conservative rule.

Sometimes the revolutionary momentum continues and ultimately the moderate and liberal elements of a coalition government lose power to the hard line revolutionary forces.  This is what happened when the October Revolution in Russia threw out the liberals and moderates and put the Bolsheviks in charge.  It is what happened in Cuba and Iran.  It happened in France when the moderates (like Lafayette) were defeated by the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror got underway.

In these situations, Americans almost always want the moderates to win.  Those are usually the people whose values are closest to our own, and with whom we can likely do business.  Unfortunately, moderates are usually too weak, too disorganized and frequently too idealistic to hold on to power in chaotic and violent times.  The hard liners — people on the ‘right’ like the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran or like Lenin and his colleagues on the left — are often much tougher, more focused and can bring more effective forces into the field than the liberal social reformers like the Marquis de Lafayette.

Protest sign in Cairo (Twitpic/elihuh2001)

For many years now, there has been a quiet tug of war between the United States and the Mubarak government.  Americans wanted Mubarak to nurture and support moderate and liberal-minded leaders and groups so that when this moment of crisis finally and inevitably came, the moderate forces would be well equipped to offer the country constructive leadership.  The Egyptian government generally resisted; it felt that as long as the choice seemed to be Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, the US would continue to back the government, however unhappy we were with it.  Despite that refusal, the US (and many European countries who have also engaged with Egyptian civil society) continued to do everything it could to encourage the rise of a liberal and modernizing movement in Egypt.  We are about to find out how successful this was.

One reason that revolutions fail is that the middle classes can ultimately become more frightened of the lower classes and of continued disorder than they are of the government.  This could happen in Egypt; small business needs order and municipal services.  Many of the liberal, secular Egyptians leading some of the early demonstrations could be spooked by signs of Iranian style Islamic militancy — or any kind of forcible redistribution of property and mob violence.

The Egyptian army has been the most important political force in the country since Egypt’s last big revolution drove out the odious King Farouk in 1952.  During all that time the army has seen the Muslim Brotherhood as a rival and an enemy.  Will these two ancient enemies now kiss and make up?  Will they enter a marriage of convenience in which each partner seeks to slip poison into the partner’s food?  Will either the army or the Brotherhood so dominate the street that one takes power alone?  Or, if power between them seems fairly equally balanced, will they vie for the support of Egypt’s small but wealthy and influential group of liberals — not to mention the country’s significant Christian minority, the Copts?

We can be sure that these scenarios and others are whirling in the minds of the leaders of Egypt’s political forces right now.  Nobody knows how it will all work out.  It could be hours, weeks or even months before we have a clear sense of Egypt’s new direction.  One more push from the demonstrators could break the military’s will to resist — or the wave could crest and the fever break.

An important factor in Egypt’s future will be the degree to which the country depends on a strong relationship with the outside world.  Egypt is not a major oil producer and its 85 million people need more than the waters of the Nile to live the good life.  Revenues from the Suez Canal, tourism and a continuing flow of foreign investment are all essential if Egypt’s economy is to provide hope for its people.  Egypt’s military does not want and cannot afford a major arms race with Israel — nor could any new Egyptian government manage the consequences of yet another war.  Egypt is no Libya, Iran or Venezuela: it cannot afford the kind of irresponsible foreign policy those countries indulge in — though no doubt there are some Egyptians who would like to give it a try.

The only thing in all this I am certain of is that the Egyptian Revolution, however it ends, will not be the only revolution in the 21st century.  We live in a revolutionary world and governments in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe and Latin America are out of touch with public opinion and overwhelmed by economic and social forces that they cannot manage.   Many heads of state and many army staffs are likely to go through what President Mubarak and the Egyptian military are going through this week.

Read the whole thing.

Barry Rubin: Whole world gone nuts, so why shouldn’t Egypt?

Barry Rubin:

First, the White House is now calling for a smooth transition in Egypt. In other words, after one week of not-so-gigantic demonstrations, President Barack Obama is openly calling for the downfall of a 60-year-old regime that has been allied with the United States for about 40 years in the most important country in the Arab world.

It’s one thing for the president to urge moderation, no violence, and efforts at compromise. It’s another to push the Egyptian government out of power and possibly usher in a new era of catastrophe for the Middle East and the world.

Couldn’t the U.S. government wait a bit and see what happens? Couldn’t it express public support for the regime and privately urge reforms and a change of personnel? Doesn’t it have any sense of the danger of anarchy or anti-American forces coming to power in Egypt?

It could, of course, be that the US intelligence services know things we don’t know about “the day after”, and that Washington can afford wanting to be seen as being on the right side of history. I am afraid that interpretation is too charitable, however.

Yet on Fox News, the usually astute Charles Krauthammer was predicting that in the next couple of days the Egyptian army would give Mubarak the final push and put forward an alternative leader in order to preserve its own position. This could be one scenario in which a (G-d forbid) Muslim Brotherhood regime could be forestalled.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be an Islamist regime. It can be an Islamist-radical nationalist government with a moderate front man. The outcome could make Iran’s revolution look like a picnic. While that last sentence is perhaps excessively alarmist, it is intended to wake up people from this daydream of Egypt becoming a stable, moderate, democratic state given the actual situation in Egypt.

Second, naivete has reached epidemic proportions. What sets me off here as an example is the Washington Post which, under the headline “Muslim Brotherhood says it is only a minor player in Egyptian protests,” tells us about this group. Of course, it says it is not important. Just as the Big Bad Wolf wore granny’s clothes — “All the better to eat you.” Why should the Western media pick up the revolutionary Islamists’ disinformation themes?

In fact, and I’m not exaggerating, the article tells us that the Brotherhood is no threat and accuses it of wimping out:

It is not the organization of radical jihadists that it is sometimes made out to be. But its caution in dealing with Mubarak has made it appear recently that it is more concerned with protecting itself than with improving the nation.

The article tells us two historical facts about the Brotherhood: it was inspired by the YMCA and was brutally repressed by the Egyptian government in the 1950s.

Sigh. And what does it leave out? That it seeks to transform Egypt into an Islamist state, reduce the Christians to third-class citizens (they are already second-class citizens), do away with rights for women, impose sharia law, drive America out of the Middle East, and wage a war of genocide against Israel.Oh, and then there’s the history of the Brotherhood: it was financed by the Nazis from the 1930s on and tried to deliver Egypt to them in World War Two, used the Nazi weapons it had been given in 1942 to try to destroy Israel in the 1948 war, had a terrorist wing and assassinated a number of officials including an Egyptian prime minister, was repressed because it tried to kill President Gamal Abdel Nasser, supports terrorism not only against Israel but also U.S. forces in Iraq, and has a current leader who calls for a jihad against the United States.

Has anyone in the Western media or governments ever read anything from Brotherhood leaders’ speeches or publications? Apparently not. In fact, regarding the media I have seen zero evidence that it has any idea what these people say every day.[…]

Let’s next listen to A[r]i Shavit of Haaretz, expressing not only what Israelis think but in this case also what all of the Arabs are thinking:

Obama’s betrayal of Hosni Mubarak is not just the betrayal of a moderate Egyptian president who remained loyal to the United States, promoted stability and encouraged moderation. Obama’s betrayal of Mubarak symbolizes the betrayal of every strategic ally in the Third World. Throughout Asia, Africa and South America, leaders are now looking at what is going on between Washington and Cairo.

Everyone grasps the message: America’s word is worthless; an alliance with America is unreliable; American has lost it. A result of this understanding will be a turn toward China, Russia and regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Brazil….The second result of this insight will be a series of international conflagrations that will result from the loss of America’s deterrent power. But the general result will be America’s rapid disappearance as a superpower….The policy setback which Washington will experience will be no less dramatic than the regime debacle which Cairo is experiencing.

This is the course of the Obama administration and what I’ve been warning about since it took office. Now the moment of anti-glory has arrived. Who is dumb enough to want to be a U.S. ally under these conditions?

Let me stress that the Mubarak regime has been repressive and corrupt. It is understandable that the people of Egypt want more freedom and a better life. So did the people of Russia in 1917, those of Germany in 1932 (they had a republic but most of them hated it), those of Iran in 1978, and those in the Gaza Strip in 2006. One can only sympathize with their situation.

But we are tottering on the edge of catastrophe here and the Obama administration is pushing Egypt into the chasm.

Barry quotes “Cole Porter”: “The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad today.” A much older writer put it diufferently: “Woe unto those that call evil good, and good evil.” (Isaiah 5:20)

Egypt: from the Mubarak rain to the El-Baradei gutter?

Muhammad ElBaradei, the toothless feckless nuclear watchpoodle that applied a “see no evil, hear no evil” policy to nuclear inspections on Iran, is now emerging as the opposition leader.And guess what? He’s been endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood (simply called “al-Ikhwan”/”The Brotherhood” in the Arab street). Yesterday I quoted Barry Rubin as pointing out that “Muhammad el-Baradei, leader of the reformist movement, says that if he were to be president he would recognize Hamas as ruler of the Gaza Strip and end all sanctions against it. (See: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,705991,00.html)” Of course, Hamas is basically the Palestinian offshoot of the Ikhwan.

The Jerusalem Post also notes that the mood of the protests does turn anti-American and anti-Israeli of late. Jerusalem has wisely avoided commenting on events, but Fox News today interviewed former Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman, who basically expressed his support for the Mubarak regime as he fears that any replacement will be dominated by the Ikhwan.

El-Baradei is looking like the Egyptian version of Alexander Kerensky (“no enemies to the left!”) at best, and outright in bed with the Ikhwan at worst.

It is a measure of just how dysfunctional Arab autocracies are that Mubarak’s replacement by former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as an alternative strongman might be the least unpalatable of the actual alternatives. (Sure, a secular democratic regime would be the best for everybody, but this is looking like a longshot at this stage. I dearly hope events prove me wrong on this one.)