Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt 2011: Carter/Reagan Redux?

I’ve been hesitant to write about this week’s demonstrations in Egypt, because even after four days I can’t quite get a handle on what’s happening and what the likely outcome will be. I have, however, found Nick Bauman’s blog on to be quite helpful. It provides background information, links to a variety of helpful sources, plus a running updates from last Tuesday, January 25, to today. The most recent updates are at the bottom of the page, but it’s interesting to scroll through in chronological order to see how the situation has ebbed and flowed since the first massive demonstrations in Cairo on Tuesday. As I write this, the two latest updates are:

UPDATE 68, Saturday 6:52 p.m. EST (Siddhartha Mahanta): … [T]he chaos in Egypt is bubbling over into Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza get most of their fuel from the blackmarket, through a labyrinthine array of tunnels and pipes that link the strip with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. The LA Times reports that gasoline smuggling into the Palestinian territories has been disrupted, inciting panic that the supply could dry up completely. Hamas officials are doing their best to assuage their concerns. But it’s done little to stanch the rush to the pumps.

UPDATE 69, Saturday 8:20 p.m. EST (Siddhartha Mahanta): Hamas’ interior ministry says that the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is under the control of Gaza security forces, reports Xinhua news service. Hamas also denies that Gazans have broken into Egyptian territories. But witnesses in the southern Gazan town of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, say they heard the sounds of explosions and gunfire on the Egyptian side of the borders. Xinhua also reports that Palestinian-run news agency Wafa says that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas telephoned his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak, affirming his government’s interests in keeping Egypt stable.

Another indispensable resource: University of Michigan Middle East expert Prof. Juan Cole, whose blog, Informed Consent, always provides the most reliable analysis of events in that region. In his latest post, Prof. Cole discusses a recent Al Jazeera interview with Dr. Ahmed Zewail, a potential successor to current Egyptian Pres. Hosni Mubarak, and Dr. Zewail’s aspirations for bringing real democratic change to the country.

As an aside, I mentioned this on Twitter and I think it’s really true: One of the biggest mistakes Americans made after the September 11, 2001 attacks was to shun Al Jazeera as a legitimate news source. After the attacks, most Americans, fed by a heavy stream of anti-Islamic paranoia from all quarters, assumed that Al Jazeera was hopelessly biased in favor of Arab and Muslim interests – and, presumably, against U.S. interests – like an Islamic version of the Soviet-era TASS news agency. In fact, Al Jazeera has proven itself to be at least as reliable as most western news agencies (and probably quite a bit more reliable that a certain (ahem) right-leaning American network); and, perhaps more importantly, has access to events in the Middle East that western news agencies just don’t have. The current crisis in Egypt has proven this beyond any doubt.

But, anyway, it’s safe to say at this juncture none of us has any clear idea what will happen in Egypt, whether the uprising will be successful at all, and if so, what form of government will replace Mubarak’s dictatorship. On the other hand, given the woefully anti-democratic regime that currently runs the country (as Nick Bauman points out, “Egypt is ranked 138th of 167 countries on The Economist’s Democracy index, a widely accepted measure of political freedom”), it’s hard not to see these mass anti-government demonstrations as a force for good.

My biggest fear with the Egyptian crisis is that the United States will repeat the mistakes it made in the late 1970s and early 1980s when popular uprisings brought down tyrants in places like Cambodia, Iran and Nicaragua, only to have the United States reflexively back the ousted dictators and turn its back on the people of those countries. Recall that the Carter administration gave its tacit support to Pol Pot in Cambodia after Vietnam invaded in 1978 to throw him out of office, Pol Pot’s genocide being too much even for the Communist Vietnamese regime. Pres. Reagan, of course, doubled down on America’s covert support for Pol Pot, leading to years of civil war there. Likewise, in the nascent stages of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Pres. Carter supported the Shah despite his horrific record of human rights abuses. It’s quite possible, even likely, that our continuing to support the murderous Shah, and our corresponding refusal to seek out the moderate, pro-democratic elements within the Iranian revolution, helped to radicalize the anti-Shah movement and made it that much easier for Islamic extremists to co-opt it for their own purposes.

Finally, the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua evolved out of a broad-based movement that included business interests, trade unions, newspapers (including conservative newspapers), leaders of the Catholic Church and others, all of whom came together in an effort to jettison the corrupt regime of Anastasio Somoza and establish democracy. Even after the Sandinistas took over in the summer of 1979, their primary goals were to rebuild the country and establish democratic institutions. But while Pres. Carter reluctantly tried to work with the new government, Pres. Reagan promptly reversed course, taking a hard line stance against the revolution that led, predictably, to the radicalization of the Sandinistas – who, in the absence of U.S. support, turned to the Soviet Union for help.

So, this is my fear: That the U.S. will move too quickly to judge the evolving revolution in Egypt and will recoil out of fear that it may contain, like virtually any popular revolution in similar circumstances, less palatable elements among the wide variety of interests demanding change. Already we’re hearing this from the usual suspects on the right. From Think Progress:

[D]uring an interview with right-wing radio host Mark Levine today, [former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John] Bolton used his time on the show to attack and undermine the pro-democracy protest movement currently underway in Egypt. The former U.N. ambassador claimed that the “real alternative” to the Mubarak government is not “Jeffersonian democracy” but rather the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. After Levine postulated that “every Jihadi nutjob is probably pouring into Egypt right now,” Bolton followed up by saying this is the “big opportunity” for jihadists and mocked the calls of the international community to restore internet services, saying that the “Muslim Brotherhood knows how to use Twitter just like naive college students do.”

Yes. Because there might theoretically be some radical elements within the broad-based anti-Mubarak movement, we should just assume that the worst will come of it, and we should therefore go back to supporting the brutal dictator there out of fear – or, worse, out of craven self-interest.

Same as it ever was.

But there is some hope. Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy magazine suggests that the Obama administration is pursuing the correct, albeit cautious, approach to the Egyptian crisis, saying this of Pres. Obama’s official comments yesterday:

This is not the language of capitulation to Mubarak’s empty promises of reform. It’s a pretty sharp challenge to him to demonstrate serious change immediately, which in no way commits to backing Mubarak if he fails to do so. And comments made by various administration officials suggest that they don’t really expect him to be able to deliver. This blunt conditionality has to be understood in tandem with White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs’ carefully chosen words that U.S. economic and military aid to Egypt would now be reviewed -- a direct, almost unprecedented form of pressure on Egypt for which many democracy activists have clamored for years to no avail.

I hope this means that Pres. Obama, unlike Pres. Carter and Pres. Reagan before him, isn’t rushing to judgment in Egypt. I tend to think that Pres. Obama will take a rational, analytical approach to this revolution – if in fact it is a revolution – and once it’s clear that Mubarak is on the way out, will seek out moderate, pro-democratic forces within the movement, ultimately supporting and encouraging those forces to rise to the top. The worst response, it seems to me, is to think Mubarak, as the devil we know, is necessarily preferable to whatever government free and fair elections might lead to, if true democracy is given a chance there.

That’s the kind of mistake we’ve made entirely too many times in the past. I don’t think we can afford to make it again.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. Bizarre - the Palestinian president assuring Mubarak that he's interested in keeping Egypt stable!

    Otherwise agree with everything you said. Did you hear, in Joe Biden's remark the other day that he didn't consider Mubarak a dictator, a faint echo of that old comment, "Yeah, he's an SOB, but he's our SOB."

  2. It’s a complex situation to be sure, and in some ways I think the best thing the U.S. can do right now is to stand back and let the situation evolve. Clearly, the Palestinian Authority is in a difficult spot – there already are reports of Gazans fleeing into Egypt, but who knows for sure what’s going on. As for Joe Biden, I love him but he shoots from the hip.

  3. One of the biggest mistakes Americans made after the September 11, 2001 attacks was to shun Al Jazeera as a legitimate news source.

    I don't think it was a mistake. I think it was as deliberate as the hoopla surrounding "pulling down Saddam's statue", i.e. all part of the total information warfare waged by our masters via the media that they control.

  4. Thunder - probably right. I guess I was being a little to generous ...