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.”