When Frank Wisner, the seasoned U.S. diplomat and envoy of President Obama, met with Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, Feb. 1, the scene must have been familiar to both men. For 30 years, American diplomats would enter one of the lavish palaces in Heliopolis, the neighborhood in Cairo from which Mubarak ruled Egypt. The Egyptian President would receive the American warmly, and the two would begin to talk about American-Egyptian relations and the fate of Middle East peace. Then the American might gently raise the issue of political reform. The President would tense up and snap back, “If I do what you want, the Islamic fundamentalists will seize power.” The conversation would return to the latest twist in the peace process.
It is quite likely that a version of this exchange took place on that Tuesday. Mubarak would surely have warned Wisner that without him, Egypt would fall prey to the radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Islamist political movement. He has often reminded visitors of the U.S.’s folly in Iran in 1979, when it withdrew support for a staunch ally, the Shah, only to see the regime replaced by a nasty anti-American theocracy. But this time, the U.S. diplomat had a different response to the Egyptian President’s arguments.
And that was the message Obama delivered to Mubarak when the two spoke on the phone on Feb. 1. “It was a tough conversation,” said an Administration official. Senior national-security aides gathered around a speakerphone in the Oval Office to listen to the call. Mubarak made it clear how difficult the uprising had been for him personally; Obama pressed the Egyptian leader to refrain from any violent response to the hundreds of thousands in the streets. But a day later, those streets — which had been remarkably peaceful since the demonstrations began — turned violent. In Cairo, Mubarak supporters, some of them wading into crowds on horseback, began battering protesters.
It was a reminder that the precise course that Egypt’s revolution will take over the next few days and weeks cannot be known. The clashes between the groups supporting and opposing the government mark a new phase in the conflict. The regime has many who live off its patronage, and they could fight to keep their power. But the opposition is now energized and empowered. And the world — and the U.S. — has put Mubarak on notice.
Whatever happens in the next few days will not change the central narrative of Egypt’s revolution. Historians will note that Jan. 25 marked the start of the end of Mubarak’s 30-year reign. And now we’ll test the theory that politicians and scholars have long debated. Will a more democratic Egypt become a radical Islamic state? Can democracy work in the Arab world?
Backward, Corrupt, Peaceable
Few thought it ever would come to this. Egypt has long been seen as a society deferential to authority, with a powerful state and a bureaucracy that might have been backward and corrupt but nonetheless kept the peace. “This a country with a remarkable record of political stability,” wrote Fouad Ajami in an essay in 1995, pointing out that in the past two centuries, Egypt has been governed by just two regimes, a monarchy set up in 1805 and the Free Officers Movement that came to power in 1952 with Gamal Abdel Nasser. (France, by comparison, has been through a revolution, two empires, five republics and a quasi-fascist dictatorship in much the same period.) In the popular imagination, Egyptians are passive, meekly submitting to religion and hierarchy. But by the end of January the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and other cities were filled with a different people: crowds of energetic, strong-willed men from all walks of life and even some women, all determined to shape their destiny and become masters of their own fate.
What changed? Well, Egyptians were never as docile as their reputation suggested. Egyptian society has spawned much political activism, from Islamic radicals to Marxists to Arab nationalists to liberals. But ever since the late 1950s, the Egyptian regime has cracked down on its civil society, shutting down political parties, closing newspapers, jailing politicians, bribing judges and silencing intellectuals. Over the past three decades Egypt became a place where few serious books were written, universities were monitored, newspapers carefully followed a bland party line and people watched what they said in public. In the past 20 years, the war against Islamic terrorist groups — often genuinely brutal thugs — allowed Mubarak’s regime to clamp down even harder on Egyptian society in the name of security.
Reform and Revolution
Egypt has had some successes, and ironically, one of them has helped foment change. Over the past decade, Egypt has been reforming its economy. From the mid-1990s on, Egypt found that in order to get loans from the IMF and the World Bank, it had to dismantle the most inefficient parts of its somewhat socialist economic system. In recent years, Mubarak — persuaded by his son Gamal, a Western-trained banker — appointed a set of energetic reformers to his Cabinet, who embarked on an ambitious effort to restructure the Egyptian economy, lowering taxes and tariffs, eliminating regulations and reducing subsidies. Egypt, long moribund, began growing vigorously. From 2006 to 2008, the economy expanded about 7% a year, and even last year, after the economic crisis, growth came in at almost 6%. Long isolated behind protectionist walls, with media in the regime’s grip, Egypt also became more connected with the world through the new communication technologies.
Why would economic progress spur protests? Growth stirs things up, upsets the settled, stagnant order and produces inequalities and uncertainties. It also creates new expectations and demands. Tunisia was not growing as vigorously as Egypt, but there too a corrupt old order had opened up, and the resulting ferment proved too much for the regime to handle. Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform itself.” It is a phenomenon that political scientists have dubbed “a revolution of rising expectations.” Dictatorships find it difficult to handle change because the structure of power they have set up cannot respond to the new, dynamic demands coming from their people. So it was in Tunisia; so it was in Egypt. Youth unemployment and food prices might have been the immediate causes, but the underlying trend was a growing, restive population, stirred up by new economic winds, connected to a wider world. (Notice that more-stagnant countries like Syria and North Korea have remained more stable.
Mubarak coupled the forward moves in the economy with a series of harsh, backward steps politically. Having allowed somewhat more open parliamentary elections in 2005, the regime reversed course and rigged the elections massively in 2010, reducing the Muslim Brotherhood’s representation in parliament from 88 to zero. Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the presidential election in 2005, was arrested on trumped-up charges, jailed, tortured and finally released in 2009. Mubarak had allowed some freedom of speech and assembly surrounding the 2005 elections, then reversed what little opening there had been. Judges and lawyers who stood up to the regime were persecuted.
On the crucial question of political succession, Mubarak bitterly disappointed many Egyptians, including several in his Cabinet, who believed that 2011 would be the year for a transition to an Egypt without him. (Many of his aides, to be clear, hoped that their patron, Gamal Mubarak, might rise in a controlled political atmosphere. But even they thought the system would have to become far more open.) Last year, Mubarak signaled that he intended to run for a sixth term, despite being 82 and in poor health. It was a sign that whatever progress might take place with the economy, serious political reform was unthinkable.
The Case for Hope
Had Mubarak made the speech promising not to run again last year rather than on Feb. 1, he would have been hailed as a reformer ushering his country into a new era. Today, it seems too little, too late. But his reputation will depend in large part on what sort of regime succeeds him. If Egypt does descend into chaos or become an Iranian-style theocracy, people might look back at Mubarak’s regime fondly. Ironically, if Egypt does better and turns into a functioning democracy, his legacy as the dictator who ruled his country before it moved to greater freedom will be more mixed.
Which will it be? Anyone making predictions with confidence is being foolhardy. Egypt is a vast, complex country and is in the midst of unprecedented change. There are certainly troubling signs. When the Pew Research Center surveyed the Arab world last April, it found that Egyptians have views that would strike the modern Western eye as extreme. Pew found that 82% of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, 84% favor the death penalty for Muslims who leave the religion, and in the struggle between “modernizers” and “fundamentalists,” 59% identify with fundamentalists.
That’s enough to make one worry about the rise of an Iranian-style regime. Except that this is not all the Pew surveys show. A 2007 poll found that 90% of Egyptians support freedom of religion, 88% an impartial judiciary and 80% free speech; 75% are opposed to censorship, and, according to the 2010 report, a large majority believes that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.
I remain convinced that fears of an Egyptian theocracy are vastly overblown. Shi’ite Iran is a model for no country — certainly not a Sunni Arab society like Egypt. The nation has seen both Mubarak and Iran’s mullahs and wants neither. More likely is the prospect of an “illiberal democracy,” in which Egypt becomes a country with reasonably free and fair elections, but the elected majority restricts individual rights and freedoms, curtails civil society and uses the state as its instrument of power. The danger, in other words, is less Iran than Russia.
My hope is that Egypt avoids this path. I cannot tell you in all honesty that it will. But much evidence suggests that democracy in Egypt could work. First, the army, which remains resolutely secular, will thwart any efforts to create a religious political order. The Egyptian army may well fight the efforts of democrats to dismantle some elements of the military dictatorship — since the elites of the armed forces have benefited mightily from that system — but it is powerful and popular enough to be able to draw certain lines. In Egypt, as in Turkey, the army has the opportunity to play a vital role in modernizing the society and checking the excesses of religious politics.
Egyptian civil society is rich and complex and has within it a persistent liberal strain. Since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, Egyptians have wanted to catch up with the West. Liberal currents of thought and politics have repeatedly flourished in the country — prominently in the 1880s, the 1920s and the 1950s. Egypt’s Fundamental Law of 1882 was an advance over almost all Asian and Middle Eastern constitutions at the time.
Egypt also retains some core elements of a liberal constitutional order, chief among them a judiciary that has fought excessive state power for decades. In a fascinating and timely book published in 2008, Egypt After Mubarak, Bruce Rutherford of Colgate University details the long and persistent struggle of the judiciary to carve out an independent role for itself, even under a military dictatorship. The recent moves toward a more open and market-based economy have also created a new business elite that has some stake in a liberal, constitutional order.
It is possible, of course, that the economic reforms will not continue. As in many countries, policies that revoke subsidies and dismantle protected industries provoke public anxiety and spirited opposition from business oligarchs (who often turn out to be those who have been protected). But given that Egypt will need economic growth, it will not be possible to turn back the basic movement toward freer markets. Such policies require better courts and laws, plus efforts to tackle corruption and improve education. And over time, they will create a middle class more independent of the state.
The Appeal, and Limits, of Islam
The real challenge remains the role of Islam, Islamic fundamentalists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Islam has a special appeal in Egypt and the broader Arab world, but it’s important to understand why. Secular dictators have ruled these lands for decades and ruthlessly suppressed all political activity. The one place they could not shut down was the mosque, so it became the center of political activism and discourse, and Islam became the language of opposition.
This is not to deny that for many Egyptians, “Islam is the solution,” as the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan claims. But the group has an allure in Egyptian society largely because it has been persecuted and banned for decades. Once it has to compete in the marketplace of ideas, it might find that, as in many Muslim countries, people are more worried about issues of governmental competence, corruption and growth than grand ideological statements.
Those issues, close to home, were at the heart of the protests not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia. It has been fascinating to watch as the legendary “Arab street” finally erupted spontaneously and freely. It turned out not to be consumed with the Middle East peace process and the Palestinians. Israelis have reacted to the unrest in Egypt with horror, convinced that any change will mean less security for their country. To an extent this is true. The peace between Egypt and Israel was never between two peoples but between their regimes. Israel might have to ask itself what policies it will have to pursue to create stability with a democratic Egypt. It would hardly be a cure-all, but were Israel to offer a deal that Palestinians accepted, it would surely help persuade Egyptians that Israel does not seek to oppress the Palestinian people.
The challenge for Israel is the challenge for the U.S. The Egyptian public’s attitude toward America is poisoned by years of Washington’s backing dictators and offering unflinching support for Israel. The U.S. too will have to ask what it will take to have better relations not merely with Egypt’s military elite but with its people. And it will have to avoid the overreaction — common in Israel — that brands every move toward social conservatism as one toward jihad. Asking women to wear veils is different from making men wear suicide belts. If the U.S. is opposed to every expression of religiosity, it will find itself unable to understand or work with a new, more democratic Middle East.
The most interesting aspect of the protests in both Tunisia and Egypt has been how small America loomed in the public’s imagination. Those on the street were not centrally concerned with the U.S., though Obama became a focus when it was clear that he could help in pushing Mubarak out. In Tunisia, the U.S. played an even smaller role. In a strange sense, this might be the consequence of both George W. Bush’s and Obama’s approaches in the region. After 9/11, Bush put a harsh spotlight on the problem of Arab dictatorships in a way that made them impossible to ignore. But he discredited his cause with a foreign policy that was deeply unpopular in the Arab world (the Iraq war, support for Israel, etc.). In 2005, Mubarak was able to tar democracy activists by pointing out that they were arguing for an American agenda for Egypt.
Obama, by contrast, pulled back from an overbearing, aggressive American role, which made it possible for Egyptian liberals and democrats to find their voices without being branded as U.S. puppets. (Even recently, the pro-Mubarak crowd warned that “outside forces” were trying to destabilize Egypt, but it didn’t work.) In fact, the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and elsewhere have resonated with the broader population of the Arab world because they came from within, having grown organically, and were concerned with the conditions of ordinary Arabs.
For five decades the Middle East has been force-fed a political discourse based on grand ideologies. For the Iranian protesters, America was not just a country or even a superpower but the “Great Satan.” What is happening in Egypt and Tunisia might be a return to a more normal politics, fueled by the realities of the modern world, rooted in each country’s conditions. In this sense, these might be the Middle East’s first post-American revolution.
by Fareed Zakeria