As Cairo, Alexandria and Suez exploded in massive protests against President Hosni Mubarak, there has been talk about “democracy” in Egypt and the need for “democratic reforms”. Our first thought is that such pressure for reforms should have come five years ago or at least a year ago when Mr. Mubarak began preparations for installing his son as Egypt’s next President.
Our second thought is that “democracy” is not that easy to install. Free and fair elections are only the first step to a democratic regime. The elections have to be followed by years or decades of building Institutions that serve the country and society rather than one man or one force like the Army. Does anyone think Gaza is a democratic place after the fair elections that brought Hamas rule?
Go back to 1950s. The leaders of the emerging world were Nasser of Egypt, Tito of Yugoslavia and Nehru of India. These were charismatic men who were respected and revered by their countries. Yugoslavia blew up after Tito. Egypt lost its way after Sadat, the successor to Nasser. Only India has gone from strength to strength.
This is because only Nehru of these three leaders understood the need to establish Institutions and to lead the country firmly towards establishing democracy deeply in his country’s psyche. Today, everyone in India understands that democracy is the best and only form of government for them.
So let us dismiss all talk of establishing democracy in Egypt. That is a project for the next decade. Let us talk first about what comes next.
The Beginning of a New Egypt
We believe that President Mubarak is essentially done. We do not believe that the Egyptian Military will fire on its own people. So we seem to be witnessing a Musharrafization of Mubarak.
We think we will see a semi-orderly process by which peace is restored to the streets and a new caretaker government is chosen by the Military. This leader could be another General or someone non-military person with a fresh face.
That is only the first step. What happens after that is critical. The Egypt of past 30 years may be gone. So we look at models that might fit the new Egypt, models that can let us look into the future.
Today’s protest is about regime change, ideally through free and fair elections. It is about extricating Egyptians from hopeless economic conditions. It is also about the deep need in Egyptian psyche to become the leading Arab country.
Egypt is a proud country of great heritage. It was the linchpin and the unquestioned leader of the Arab Middle East just 30 years ago. It was Egyptian President Sadat who signed the historic peace accord with Israel. Mr. Sadat was assassinated shortly thereafter and Mr. Mubarak took over. That was the top for Egypt. Under Mubarak’s rule, Egypt sank into a nothing role. Today, Iran and Turkey are the leaders in the Middle East, both non-Arabic states.
Repairing this torn Egyptian psyche may be the most important tasks of the new model.
The Russian Model
In this context, President Sadat could be viewed as President Gorbachev, a well-intentioned man who drank too much of the western kool-aid and ended up minimizing his country. The fall of the Berlin Wall converted Russia into an insignificant country and the peace accord with Israel converted Egypt into an insignificant country.
After a period of misery, after comical leaders like Yeltsin, a Putin emerged in Russia. Today, Russia is strong and making its impact felt all over areas it considers important. This is why President Obama spent so much effort in “resetting” US-Russia relations.
This could be a model for tomorrow’s Egypt. Will a Putin-type strong leader emerge in Egypt either now or in a few years with the same deep drive to restore respect for Egypt? Will such a leader have to be less friendly with Israel? If Turkey, Israel’s old friend, found it necessary to turn on Israel to gain access to Arab minds, why wouldn’t it become necessary for an Egyptian Putin to do the same?
Speaking of Mr. Putin, would his Russia love to regain influence in their old friend Egypt? Would Russia help with technology, military and otherwise, to allow Egypt become strong again? Will an Egyptian Putin be able to play the USA, Saudis and Russians against each other to gain concessions for Egypt? No wonder Israelis are calling the events in Egypt an earthquake for Israel!
The Russian model may be farther away. How about a much nearer model, the model that has worked for the past 30 years and continues to work today? A model that allows a regime to be regarded as America’s crucial ally, as a supporter for radical Islam and a supporter of anti-American forces all at the same time.
The Pakistani Model
You know the model we are talking about. The mesmerizing model of Pakistan, America’s crucial strategic ally. Recall the protests in Pakistan to overthrow the Musharraf regime. Don’t you see the similarities between Mubarak and Musharraf? The Egyptian Military is the only Institution respected in Egypt just like the Pakistani Army is the only Institution respected in Pakistan.
Look at Pakistani history. Strongmen have come and gone, Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia Ul Haq, Bhutto, Musharraf. They have their days. But once protests intensify against the reigning strongman, the Pakistani Military steps in and overthrows the strongman. This is followed by temporary military rule, then elections, an impotent civilian government, a new strongman and so on.
Before you dismiss this model as pathetic or a failure, look at its track record over the past 40-50 years. American and Western aid to Pakistan has grown steadily over these decades. Every US President comes in with robust intentions to straighten out Pakistan but gets straightened out himself.
The success of this model is that it satisfies & dissatisfies every powerful segment that could threaten the model. The religious mullahs & madrassas receive money from the regime but are unhappy about the regime’s friendliness with America. The regime keeps its religious credentials current by passing draconian religious laws and refusing to overturn them. The regime provides noticeable help to America in exchange for all its financial and military aid. The regime then turns around and hands over part of American money to the Taleban to help them fight American forces in Afghanistan.
What a perfect model to keep all its constituents just happy enough or just unhappy enough? It works because no constituent knows what would replace it. So better a known devil than an unknown.
Wouldn’t Egypt be perfect for the Pakistani Model? It’s position atop the Suez is strategic. It is the largest Arab country. It is the perfect country to threaten Saudi Arabia or to force Saudis to financially support it. It is the perfect country for Iran to befriend with money, weapons and terrorism training. It is the perfect country for Russia to befriend with sophisticated weapons and nuclear reactors. So Israel would have to try hard to keep Egypt from going anti-Israel. And America cannot afford to see Egypt turn anti-American.
But like the Russian model, the Pakistani model for Egypt would have to create deep pride among Egyptians, a pride that would seem consistent with old glories. And what would such a prize be?
Becoming the first Arab country with Nuclear Capability. It has been perfect for Pakistan. It could be even better for Egypt.
A nuclear Egypt could promise to protect Saudi Arabia against a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Egypt would be the unquestioned leader of Arabs against Israel. At the same time, Egypt could convince Israel that any use of nukes by Egypt against Israel would kill millions of Egyptians as well and make the case that Egypt’s nukes are really against Iran. Would America be able to demonize both Iran and Egypt at th
e same time for going nuclear? We don’t think so.
And going nuclear is much easier and much cheaper than reforming Egyptian economy or creating jobs. And going nuclear instills pride and allows people to ignore economic hardship. Just look at Pakistan & Iran.
So don’t brush off the Pakistani model. It has demonstrated its durability and resiliency.
The Iranian Model
Think back to the Iranian revolution in 1979. The revolution against the Shah of Iran began just like today’s Egyptian revolt. Then after the Shah was overthrown, the forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeni pushed out the bureaucrats, the intellectuals, the students and took power. That was probably the worst strategic defeat for the USA. Iran turned from being America’s strongest ally to its most virulent enemy.
Popular revolts led by students, intellectuals tend to go this route. Think back to the French revolution. After its initial success, Robespierre and the Guillotine gang took over.
The Muslim Brotherhood accounts for about 20% of Egyptian society. It is a large enough number. It has shown its ability to survive against 30 years of ruthless oppression by Mubarak’s forces. This organization contributed Ayman Al-Jawahiri to Al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Al-Qaeda remains the intellectual strength of that movement. So the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be taken lightly.
But the Egyptian Military is virulently opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. And so are America, Saudi Arabia & Israel. So we think chances of an Islamic takeover of the Egyptian regime are remote, at least at this stage.
Gaza remains the greatest challenge in this context. An Israeli offensive in Gaza and the powerlessness of the new Egyptian government to prevent it might lead to broader support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
A Neo Turko-Egyptian Model
Turkey has been the sole Muslim success story. Our hope is that the Egyptian Military learns from Turkey and chooses a leader who can take Egypt forward on a path of economic liberalization, of secular development with a dream to make Egypt successful again. A new Egypt with a new Iraq could reverse the recent forces that threaten to take the Middle East back to its strife-prone days.
To recast Egypt into this model would take great effort by both Egyptians, Israelis, Saudis, the Gulf states and by America. It may be worth it. Because this is the only model that we think can keep Egypt from going Nuclear.
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