Why has the Obama administration been so tepid in its support for the biggest popular revolution in the modern Arab world? The short answer is Washington’s fear that a vacuum left by President Mubarak’s departure will be filled by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. “Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power,” warns Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Islamic radicals hostile to America and Israel might take power through the ballot box, upending the stability of the Middle East and shifting the regional balance of power decisively against the West.
As American leaders struggle to balance stability and reform in Egypt, history offers useful lessons. Many deem the closest historical parallel to be the Iranian revolution—with the clear implication that people power in the Middle East doesn’t produce liberal democracy but dangerous theocracy.
But a more accurate precedent may be Pakistan—where Washington has stood firmly behind four military strongmen whose undemocratic rule has spanned half the nation’s history. The result? The rise of the world’s most virulent Islamic radicalism, dangerous nuclear proliferation, the hollowing out of civil society, chronic failures of governance, and the unrivalled dominance of the army over political life. President Obama’s continued support for an Egyptian transition that reinforces the army’s role as the central political actor risks a Pakistan-style outcome that thwarts the popular will, incentivizes violent extremism, fans the flames of hostility to the West, and further weakens America’s position in the broader Middle East.
In both Egypt and Pakistan, unaccountable leaders backed by their military establishments justified repression as vital to broader geopolitical goals that aligned with American interests. But did they? President Mubarak always did just enough to sustain massive American aid while enjoying little more than a cold peace with Israel—and in the process -delegitimized relations with Israel in the eyes of many Egyptians by virtue of his association with it. From 2001 to 2008, General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan did just enough to sustain the heavy flow of U.S. arms and dollars by helping America in Afghanistan—while at the same time hedging his bets by supporting the Taliban, too.
In both countries, the partnership that autocrats offered America destabilized their countries and the wider international system. Authoritarian rulers in Pakistan, as in Egypt, choked off the moderate, democratic, and liberal elements of their society, radicalizing the opposition and channeling its dissent into violence. The heavy hand of these regimes helped spawn successive generations of global terrorists, from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. At the same time, the risk of homegrown terrorism reinforced the army’s importance as a countervailing institution, generating floods of American arms and equipment that only further tilted society’s civil-military balance toward the men in uniforms.
Look at the results in Pakistan today. Democratic elections following the end of military rule in 2008 produced a civilian administration friendly to the West and India. But foreign and defense policy are controlled by the armed forces. Elements of the military establishment continue to sponsor Afghan Taliban, Haqqani, and Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters with the blood of American soldiers and civilians on their hands.
So the parallels between Pakistan and Egypt are telling. Nonetheless, no two strongmen are alike. President Mubarak crushed Islamic extremism in its internal (Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Islamic Jihad) and external (Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda) manifestations. Pakistan’s last military ruler, confronted with an American ultimatum on September 12, 2001, proceeded to crack down hard on al Qaeda inside Pakistan—as attested by its multiple attempts to assassinate him. But Musharraf gave a free hand to other Islamic militants who did not target the Pakistani state but rather its American and Indian “adversaries.” His powerful ISI intelligence service covertly supported Islamist political parties during Pakistan’s unfree elections in 2002 to divert support from Musharraf’s liberal rivals—with the result that Islamists earned their highest electoral tally in Pakistani history.
Pakistan has sometimes held free elections and has a robust civil society. This is in striking contrast to Egypt, where Mubarak made the free operation of civil society impossible. Emergency rule has been in place since 1981, prominent opposition parties are banned, the press was until days ago captive to the regime, and any gathering of more than five people without government permission was deemed to “threaten public order.”
Even so, the uprising in Egypt unites a broad spectrum of the population, from conservative Islamists to middle-class doctors and lawyers to Google executives to students of the Facebook generation. Fears of an Islamist “one man, one vote, one time” takeover seem overblown. What of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose strength derives in part from its opposition to Mubarak’s rule and from the state’s persecution of its mainstream political opponents? “Let them have a political party just like everyone else—they will not win more than 10 percent,” one Coptic Christian told the New York Times.
The long-term lessons are clear. America’s enduring strategic interests would be better served by siding with the Egyptian masses who seek freedom and dignity than with an unaccountable establishment.
The United States should use its considerable leverage in Egypt, the second-largest recipient of American assistance, to push for rapid elections under a caretaker government. America should also rebalance its massive military assistance towards civilian aid on the understanding that strengthening civic institutions and economic opportunity are national security imperatives. The strategic objective must be to form a true alliance with the Egyptian public rather than with a small coterie of their rulers. The same is true in Pakistan.
As a result of our pursuing a top-down approach for far too long, America’s approval rating in Pakistan stands at roughly 18 percent. A majority of Pakistanis views the United States as the country’s leading adversary—notwithstanding billions upon billions of dollars in U.S. assistance and a 57-year-old strategic alliance. Pakistan is an example of how not to pursue a policy that mistakes a false “stability” for a genuine partnership truer to our interests and values.
Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He previously served as a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff and as foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain. These are his personal views.