We all know that the Egyptian government is very likely to fall. It appears that the United States government is unable to decide if this is good or bad. Good or bad at this time does not matter. What matters is winning the peace and ensuring freedom for the Egyptian people.
Take a good, long look at Egypt. I understand that many of us are worn out by the constant drama of the Middle East, but this will affect us sooner rather than later. If I were to recount, or even just list, the drama of the past 40 years in that region then you would probably not complete this blog. So, let’s just take a hard look at Egypt, keeping in mind that this is evolving rapidly and what I write may only be relevant for a few hours – or days, if I’m lucky. The key is that it is still “evolution and not “revolution”.
Background: President Hosni Mubarak has led Egypt since the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Sadat was killed by Egyptian troops who were members of the Islamic Jihad, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Mubarak, now 72, was the vice-president at that time and has been a reliable ally to the US government and reasonable in his dealings with Israel. The US has supported Mubarak for those reasons and because he has lent some stability to a region where it is a rare and precious commodity.
Egypt holds a major position in, not just regional, but world affairs. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab states willing to sign peace treaties with Israel, so the idea of a new Egyptian government has a significant impact on Israel and, by extension, the United States. In addition, Egypt controls the Suez Canal through which the US moves its naval assets in the region. More importantly to American consumers, up to 2.2 million barrels of oil per day can be shipped through the canal, and up to 2.3 million barrels of oil can be pumped daily through the Suez-Mediterranean Pipeline beside the canal. A total of approximately eight percent of the world’s trade passes through the 121-mile canal that connects the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
A closure of the Suez Canal area would cause an increase in petroleum prices as well as probable delays in delivery and possibly shortages. OPEC says it will increase production if the canal if closed, but the delay in oil deliveries caused by the 4,000 mile trip around the Cape of Good Hope will still be cause price increases.
The harsh truth is that our foreign policy is driven by pragmatism, not idealism. I’m not complaining; it’s simply a fact. When Vice-President Joe Biden stated that Mubarak is “not a dictator” he was merely hewing to the standard Washington line.
It is apparent that Mubarak's time has come and that a new Egyptian government is needed. We also cannot afford to throw up our hands and hope for the best. It's time to let the protesters know that we will support them in their goal of having a Western-style democracy. We do not need another Iran. We need to be pro-active and support our own principles.
In an interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair made the point that protestors have two separate objectives. First is the toppling of Mubarak’s government. This is a goal shared by a wide range of groups from Coptic Christians, who make up approximately 20% of Egypt’s population, to the radical fringe group Muslim Brotherhood (MB) who have been outlawed in Egypt for decades.
The second objective is the formation of a new government. This is where the factions will differ greatly and the shape of the new government will vary depending on who calls the shots. Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei has asked for Mubarak to step aside, and he is seen as a possible catalyst in the construction of a far less oppressive, pro-western government. ElBaradei would likely receive the support of the Coptics whose patriarch encouraged their active participation in the demonstrations. If ElBaradei’s name sounds familiar; it should. He was the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when the US was searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not begin the protests, but is seeking to take advantage of the situation. It has been an organization since 1928 and its members and former members played major roles in the founding of Islamo-Fascist groups from Hamas to al Qaeda to, as mentioned earlier, Islamic Jihad. MB membership levels are unknown, but they have two huge advantages over any of the pro-western leaders. They are organized; and they are violent.
There are additional factors to consider. The Egyptian military is very Americanized. They have shown restraint in dealing with protestors and will likely be a major player in deciding the shape of the new government.
The leaders of the protests are mostly Egyptian men under the age of 30, a group hard hit by unemployment. The age of the protestors is no surprise because two-thirds of Egypt’s population is under the age of 30. Demographically Egypt is the youngest and, at 80 million, most populous Arab nation. Youth is wonderful but a lack of life experience can be fatal. If this government is changed, these young people must also "win" the government from stiff, radical competition.
This youthful nation is different than one might expect. Just this year, Egyptian Muslims formed a human barrier around Coptic churches to protect Christian worshippers from further violence after the bombing of a Coptic service days earlier by radical jihadists.
Muslim Brotherhood members have gone on Iranian television, blamed Israel for Mubarak’s continued leadership and taunted the Egyptian army and police. The MB is already calling for Egypt to turn its armies toward Israel. Could the MB actually turn Egypt into another Iran?
Fringe element or not, don’t be dismissive of the idea. There is a history of new pro-western governments submitting to well-organized, violent zealots. Do you know these names? Manuel Urrutia Lleó? Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky? Imre Nagy? They might have been the George Washingtons of their respective countries. Instead, after winning the revolution, their governments were all subverted by well-organized, violent, anti-western forces.
The US needs to support the Egyptian people or risk losing another country to violence and oppression. It is a time to be respectful of Egypt's situation but openly available to provide help as needed in the formation of a new government. A new Egypt can remain an ally while becoming still more stable and a peaceful influence in a region that needs peace and stability.
More on Manuel Urrutia Lleó and his role in Cuba in a following blog.