The Egyptian Army and Obama
The generals in Cairo will now test the president’s tolerance for autocracy.
Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
The denouement of Mubarak’s reign may give hope to the military for a soft landing. The lack of violence in the demonstrations throughout the country—despite the bloody provocations of Egyptian security forces—has been astonishing. It would be unwise to underestimate the vengeful sentiments that are undoubtedly widespread or to overestimate the moderating effect of Egypt’s age-old settled culture, which has little of the open nastiness so common in Algeria or Iraq. But the restraint of the demonstrators has been—for the Egyptians themselves—ennobling. This pacifism has certainly deterred the army from brutality; it may well push the military towards backing more representative government over the coming months.
We should, however, assume that the military’s recidivist impulse is strong. We should also assume that the Egyptian Army doesn’t yet view the events of January and February as the prelude to a real revolution, but only as an uprising that required Mubarak to depart in order to preserve “the system.”
President Obama appears to be abandoning the pro-authoritarian, status-quo realism that had defined his administration’s policy toward the Middle East. The June 12, 2009, electoral earthquake in Tehran barely shook the White House (the diplomatic effort to stop the mullahs’ quest for nuclear weapons trumped whatever pro-democracy empathy President Obama may have felt for the Iranian demonstrators). But Tahrir Square may have finally broken the hold that Washington’s authoritarian-tolerant liberal foreign-policy establishment (think the pro-Mubarak emissary Frank Wisner) had on the president. Bill Burns, Middle Eastern dictators’ favorite diplomat at the State Department, may still be number three at Foggy Bottom, but it’s a good guess that he will no longer be making quips about how U.S. foreign policy aims to turn “Putin into our [Russian] Mubarak.” (The idea actually now has a certain appeal.)
Contrary to so much chic leftist chatter, the United States still has an important role to play in Egypt’s democratic transition. We still possess considerable financial leverage on Egypt’s military; we should not hesitate to use it if the army doesn’t immediately end the draconian police-state emergency regulations and soon establish a transitional government whose membership includes prominent nonmilitary men. A transitional government should be open to all—including members of the Muslim Brotherhood—and must have real authority. That government, not the military, should set the calendar for new elections and decide whether Egypt’s current constitution can be revised or is better chucked into the trash bin. (Probably the latter.)
As President Obama may know now, the most difficult time for his administration lies in the months ahead, when the Egyptian Army will test to see how much autocracy (and wealth) it can keep in its hands. There will surely be an enormous temptation in Washington, on both the left and right, to side with the army for a “slow” transition or even a “restrictive democracy,” where the Muslim Brothers are excluded from parliament. Much of Washington, like most in the European Union, wants to support democracy in Egypt, but a democracy that follows the exact same policies as Mubarak’s dictatorship.
Such a democracy is unlikely to be born. Egyptians need the liberty to grow as they see fit and as they can. Real liberal democracy in the Arab world lies down this difficult path. There is reason to hope that President Obama, whose sympathies in the past inclined him toward “authentic” third-world potentates, may understand now that George W. Bush was right to castigate the foreign policy that Bush senior adored. In any case, President Obama and Egypt are now tied together. If Egyptian democracy gets off the ground, the odds are decent that the president will be able to reinvent himself overseas. That may not be enough to save him in 2012 from his domestic policies. But it might.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).