Mubarak’s regime may prove more brittle than Tunisia’s

February 01, 2011

[This dispatch was written and posted on Jan. 30, but because of a computer glitch, is dated Feb. 1 on site.]

* Iranian commentator Abbas Milani: “For Egyptians, the history of the Iranian Revolution should serve as a warning. In 1978, Ayatollah Khomeini hid his true intentions – namely the creation of a despotic rule of the clerics – behind the mantle of democracy. More than once he promised that not a single cleric would hold a position of power in the future government. But once in power, he created the current clerical despotism. And when, in June 2009, three million people took to the streets of Tehran to protest decades of oppression, they were brutally suppressed.”

* Morris and McGann: “The U.S. has enormous leverage in Egypt – far more than it had in Iran in 2009. In the 1950s, the accusation ‘who lost China’ resonated throughout American politics and led to the defeat of the Democratic Party in the presidential elections of 1952. Unless President Obama reverses field and strongly opposes letting the Muslim brotherhood take over Egypt, he will be hit with the modern equivalent of the 1952 question: Who Lost Egypt?”

* “Egypt, with 85 million people, is the largest country in the Middle East or North Africa. Combined with Iran’s 75 million (the second largest) they have 160 million people. We must not let the two most populous and powerful nations in the region fall under the sway of Muslim extremism.”

***

This dispatch on the events in Egypt is divided into two for space reasons. The other part can be read here: So Israel wasn’t the central source of Arab concern after all?

 

CONTENTS

1. A moving video
2. Egypt deploys troops along Gaza border
3. Israel hopes Suleiman can maintain control
4. Jordan potentially “even bigger threat” to Israel
5. Abbas calls Mubarak to express support
6. “Who lost Egypt?” (By Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, Jan. 29, 2011)
7. “What are the protests really about?” (By Lee Smith, Weekly Standard, Jan. 27, 2011)
8. “A note of warning and encouragement” (By Abbas Milani, New Republic, Jan. 30, 2011)


A MOVING VIDEO

[Notes below by Tom Gross]

In some respects events in recent days in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab world (and events in Iran in 2009) prove that the neo-cons were right all along: people in the Middle East want freedom and democracy as much as people anywhere else do.

It is not in their “culture” to want to live under authoritarian rule – as so many of President Bush’s fiercest opponents in the Western media, and people who wished to see Saddam and other despots stay in power, have claimed.

Here is a short and moving interview with Waseem Wagdi, an Egyptian protesting outside the Egyptian Embassy in London on Saturday, who expresses the views of many Arabs yearning for freedom in the Arab world just as we enjoy it in the West.


***

At the end, when Wagdi switches to Arabic, he quotes a well-known poem. The translation of the full poem is (according to one reader):

My tragedy of my life / Is my share of your tragedies / I call on you / I press your hands / I kiss the ground under your feet / and I say: I sacrifice myself for you / I did not humiliate myself in my homeland / and I did not lower my shoulders / I stood facing my oppressors / orphaned, naked, and bare foot/ I call on you.

***

UPDATE

Here is a less positive video. At the end of the 52 second clip, a member of the Muslim brotherhood in Cairo tells CNN:

“Because we know, if Hosni Mubarak fell, we are, the whole people in Egypt, we’re going to be free, we’re going to be free. If the people are free in Egypt, we’re going to destroy Israel!”

 

EGYPT DEPLOYS TROOPS ALONG GAZA BORDER

Egyptian security forces stepped up their presence along Egypt’s border with Gaza yesterday in a bid to stop Hamas militants from crossing between the two territories. They are concerned that Gaza-based groups will take advantage of the chaos in Egypt to launch terror attacks against Egypt and Israel.

On Sunday, a number of Hamas operatives, including the group’s commander for Khan Younis, escaped from a jail in Egypt and were believed to be making their way back to the Gaza Strip.

Two weeks ago, the Egyptian authorities accused a Palestinian radical group based in Gaza of being behind the New Year’s Eve suicide bombing in a church in Alexandria that killed more than 20 Christians. (For more on that attack, please see the dispatch Jan. 4, 2011: Iran and others blame Jews for New Year’s church massacre in Egypt.)

Were the Muslim Brotherhood to take control of Egypt, Israel would face an enemy with one of the largest and strongest militaries in the world, and one that has some of America’s most advanced equipment. Egypt’s military has up to one million men and is ranked 10th in the world in size. It has more than 300 U.S.-built warplanes, modern American Abrams tanks, and many attack helicopters.

 

ISRAEL HOPES SULEIMAN CAN MAINTAIN CONTROL

The appointment by President Hosni Mubarak over the weekend of Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman as Egypt’s vice president has been quietly welcomed in Israel.

Suleiman is a firm secularist who opposes the threat of Hamas and the Muslim brotherhood, as well as rising Iranian influence in the Arab world.

“This may be the end of Hosni Mubarak’s role as president, but the situation could be brought under control by Suleiman, who has the confidence of the Egyptian military,” one Israeli official said.

Suleiman, 74, is much more popular than Mubarak among Egyptians, having avoided the corruption associated with other senior figures in the regime.

Suleiman was born in southern Egypt and enrolled at the country’s Military Academy at age 18. He rose through the ranks, and fought in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War against Israel. But he then embraced President Sadat’s 1978 peace treaty with Israel.

In 1993, Sadat’s successor Mubarak appointed him to head Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate. He fought a concerted campaign to crush the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya terrorist organization, which had killed hundreds of members of the Egyptian security forces and foreign tourists in a series of attacks in the 1990s.

***

Incidentally, I am told that a considerable number of Egyptians support the Mubarak government, especially older ones who remember how much worse things were under Nasser. But Western TV journalists don’t seem particularly interested in interviewing Mubarak’s supporters.

 

JORDAN POTENTIALLY “EVEN BIGGER THREAT” TO ISRAEL

Israel’s concerns are not limited to Egypt. One former intelligence official said that Israel needed to be even more concerned with a potential revolution spreading to Jordan. “In Egypt, Israel has Sinai as a major buffer zone,” that person said. “This is not the case in Jordan, where there is a massive Palestinian population that could directly threaten Israel through the West Bank.”

Jordanian authorities have put security forces and police on red alert during the past two weeks since the revolution in Tunisia which toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The army, gendarmerie and other police units have been banned from leaving their bases as concern grows that ripples of Tunisia’s political earthquake (or “Tunisuami”) could reach the kingdom.

 

ABBAS CALLS MUBARAK TO EXPRESS SUPPORT

Palestinian Authority officials seem to have expressed as much concern about the events in Egypt as Israeli ones have. They note that Mubarak’s government has been very supportive of the PA and of Fatah in its struggle with Hamas.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas phoned President Mubarak over the weekend to express his strong support.

Abbas visited Cairo last week, where he met with Mubarak and General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president on Saturday.

The PA has banned Palestinians on the West Bank from demonstrating in support of the Egyptian demonstrators, who are demanding Mubarak’s removal from power.

By contrast, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip voiced hope that the “revolution” in Egypt would lead to the downfall of Mubarak’s regime. Relations between Hamas and Egypt have been poor for a number of years, especially because of Cairo’s refusal to reopen the Rafah border crossing to mass arms smuggling by Hamas into Gaza.

Last week, thousands of Hamas-supporting Gazans protested against the Palestinian Authority and burned an effigy of President Abbas.

Abbas was one of the few Arab leaders to phone ousted Tunisian President Zine el- Abidine bin Ali shortly before he fled to Saudi Arabia.

***

I attach three articles of interest, below.

-- Tom Gross


FULL ARTICLES

WHO LOST CHINA? WHO LOST EGYPT?

Who lost Egypt?
By Dick Morris and Eileen McGann
January 29, 2011

In the 1950s, the accusation “who lost China “resonated throughout American politics and led to the defeat of the Democratic Party in the presidential elections of 1952. Unless President Obama reverses field and strongly opposes letting the Muslim brotherhood take over Egypt, he will be hit with the modern equivalent of the 1952 question: Who Lost Egypt?

The Iranian government is waiting for Egypt to fall into its lap. The Muslim Brotherhood, dominated by Iranian Islamic fundamentalism, will doubtless emerge as the winner should the government of Egypt fall. The Obama Administration, in failing to throw its weight against an Islamic takeover, is guilty of the same mistake that led President Carter to fail to support the Shah, opening the door for the Ayatollah Khomeini to take over Iran.

The United States has enormous leverage in Egypt – far more than it had in Iran. We provide Egypt with upwards of $2 billion a year in foreign aid under the provisos of the Camp David Accords orchestrated by Carter. The Egyptian military, in particular, receives $1.3 billion of this money. The United States, as the pay master, needs to send a signal to the military that it will be supportive of its efforts to keep Egypt out of the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists. Instead, Obama has put our military aid to Egypt “under review” to pressure Mubarak to mute his response to the demonstrators and has given top priority to “preventing the loss of human life.”

President Obama should say that Egypt has always been a friend of the United States. He should point out that it was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel. He should recall that President Sadat, who signed the peace accords, paid for doing so with his life and that President Mubarak has carried on in his footsteps. He should condemn the efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood extremists to take over the country and indicate that America stands by her longtime ally. He should address the need for reform and urge Mubarak to enact needed changes. But his emphasis should be on standing with our ally.

The return of Nobel laureate Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has to Egypt as the presumptive heir to Mubarak tells us where this revolution is headed. Carolyn Glick, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, explains how dangerous ElBaradei is. “As IAEA head,” she writes, “Elbaradei shielded Iran ‘s nuclear weapons program from the Security Council. He [has] continued to lobby against significant UN Security Council sanctions or other actions against Iran… Last week, he dismissed the threat of a nuclear armed Iran [saying] ‘there is a lot of hype in this debate’.”

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, Glick notes that “it forms the largest and best organized opposition to the Mubarak regime and [is] the progenitor of Hamas and al Qaidi. It seeks Egypt’s transformation into an Islamic regime that will stand at the forefront of the global jihad.”

Now is the time for Americans to start asking the question: Who is losing Egypt? We need to debunk the starry eyed idealistic yearning for reform and the fantasy that a liberal democracy will come from these demonstrations. It won’t. Iranian domination will.

Egypt, with 80 million people, is the largest country in the Middle East or North Africa. Combined with Iran’s 75 million (the second largest) they have 155 million people. By contrast the entire rest of the region -- Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, UAE, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar combined -- have only 200 million.

We must not let the two most populous and powerful nations in the region fall under the sway of Muslim extremism, the one through the weakness of Jimmy Carter and the other through the weakness of Barack Obama.

 

THE BATTLE FOR THE SUCCESSION

Protests in Egypt: What are they really about?
By Lee Smith
The Weekly Standard
January 27, 2011

[Tom Gross adds: please note this article was published four days ago, and events have moved quickly since then.]

Egyptian sources are dismissing reports that Gamal Mubarak and his family have left Cairo for London. If those earlier accounts were not outright propaganda, they seem to have been based more on wishful thinking than reality. The Mubarak regime is not as brittle as that of Tunisia’s erstwhile president-for-life, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and right now seems to be in little danger of falling. However, it does seem to be the case that the protests erupting throughout Egypt’s major cities are less about President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year-long reign than they are about the succession of the man who seems to be his chosen heir, his 47-year-old son Gamal.

The test of an Arab dictator is not the virtue of his rule, but the length of it, and to be followed by his progeny extends his name further into the future. In this regard Arab presidents are no different from Arab monarchs – Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidential palace from his father Hafez; Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam will rule Libya once his father is gone; and Saddam’s boys would have shared his father’s spoils until one had figured out how to murder the other. Hosni Mubarak would seem to be an exception insofar as it is rumored that it is his wife Suzanne who most wants Gamal to be the next ruler of Egypt. If the president himself is less enthusiastic that is perhaps because he understands that the nature of the regime and the career of his son are not an ideal fit.

To the IMF and the World Bank, a few European capitals, and even certain sectors of Washington, Gamal looks like the future of the Arab world: a Western-educated, pro-business technocrat who worked as a banker in London and has surrounded himself with a cadre of young businessmen responsible for liberal reforms that have grown the Egyptian economy for more than half a decade. Never mind that little of this has trickled down to the Egyptian masses, 60 percent of which live on less than $2 a day. The real question is how much of this money will it take to ensure the loyalty of the military and security officials who are responsible for the day-to-day operations, and security, of the Egyptian government.

It seems that Ben Ali lost Tunisia because his wife’s family had a hand in every business in the country, including those that the military was accustomed to profiting from. Thus last week the Tunisian army made the only logical decision when it chose not to fire on civilians: perhaps they would shed the blood of innocents to protect their own interests, but certainly not to secure the stake of precisely those people who are taking money out of their wallets. What we are seeing in the streets of Egypt is perhaps something similar. Cairo’s military and security apparatus is using the demonstrations as leverage in order to improve its position; the men who run Egypt are deciding whether or not they want Gamal to be the next president, and if so what it will cost him.

If Gamal goes, the likely successor will be intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the man rumored to be the young Mubarak’s chief rival, or alternately, the future power behind Gamal’s throne. Gamal’s problem is that he has no military experience whatsoever, a liability for the prospective head of a regime whose coherence and internal legitimacy is based on nothing other than its symbiotic relationship with the military. Nonetheless, even if Gamal really were to leave for London and even if his father stepped down, or just decided not to run for president later this year, the Mubarak regime would not fall because in reality there is no Mubarak regime as such.

Rather, it is a Free Officers regime, one that has lasted almost half a century, or dating back to the 1952 coup that deposed King Farouk. During that period, the regime has survived 3 wars with Israel and another in Yemen. And that’s not all: almost as bad as Gamal abd-el Nasser’s public humiliation after losing the six-day war in 1967 was the regional isolation imposed on Cairo after Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Jerusalem. But the regime survived both, as well as Sadat’s assassination and a subsequent civil war throughout the 1980s and 1990s with armed Islamists, many of whom went on to form the leadership of al Qaeda. A regime that has been tested under that kind of fire is unlikely to fold in the face of 50,000 protesters throwing rocks.

For all the excitement surrounding the demonstrations, it’s worth remembering that the nominally docile Egyptian masses take to the streets with some regularity, especially when it involves food prices and living wages. More to the point, it is an unfortunate fact of modern Egyptian history that its people are often susceptible to ideological politics. For instance, Nasser led the country to disaster and yet compared to Sadat the peacemaker or Mubarak the stolid pharaoh who has kept the country stable, if static, it is Nasser who owns the affections of the Egyptian masses. That is to say, we don’t know exactly what the protestors want. There are those who hate the regime because it jails and tortures bloggers and those who hate it because it won’t make war on Israel. No doubt some of the young are just fed up they have never known another Egyptian ruler in their lifetimes. Some of the youth are democrats and others are decidedly not.

It is not always a good thing when people go to the streets; indeed the history of revolutionary action shows that people go to the streets to shed blood more often than they do to demand democratic reforms. Perhaps it is an appetite for activist politics that explains why so many Western observers are now captured by the moment.

Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why it seems as if no one had learned from the failures of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda – namely the Palestinian Authority elections that empowered Hamas – or could remember its successes. The Iraqis and Lebanese went to the streets, too, and our allies there are under pressure and ignored not only by the Obama administration, but also by a press corps and intelligentsia that mostly seems just fascinated by the spectacle of Arabs throwing themselves against a wall, regardless of the outcome.

 

A NOTE OF WARNING AND ENCOURAGEMENT FOR EGYPTIANS

A Note of Warning and Encouragement for Egyptians
From an Iranian writer who lived through the 1979 Revolution
By Abbas Milani
The New Republic
January 30, 2011

After days of unrest, after declaring martial law in some of the country’s main cities, the authoritarian leader gave a much anticipated television speech. His tone was repentant. He promised change and reform. The people wanted democracy and he promised to bend to their wishes.

For a long time, the United States had been advising him to open his political system – but had been seen publicly as his chief supporter. The U.S. president had given lofty and elegant speeches defending democracy and human rights, assuring the people of the Middle East that the United States supported their democratic demands. But both the leader and his American supporters were caught off-guard by the size of the demonstrations. American officials began trying to walk a dangerous tight-rope: offering support for the beleaguered leader but also establishing ties and credibility with the opposition.

When the leader tried to use the force of his military to calm the situation, the United States issued ambiguous statements, indicating support for the leader’s desire to establish law and order on the one hand while at the same time insisting that the march of democracy must continue, and that the use of force could not be a solution to the country’s problems. Benefiting from the subsequent chaos, radical Islamists, posing as democrats, used the chance to seize power and deracinate the democratic movement in favor of tradition and theocracy.

The country I am speaking of is not Egypt in 2011 but Iran in 1979. The leader is the Shah, not Hosni Mubarak. Yet, as this history makes clear, the parallels between then and now are numerous. And they offer some key lessons for Americans and Egyptians alike.

For U.S. policymakers, the Iranian Revolution illustrates the perils of vacillating between defending an old regime and establishing ties with new democrats. President Obama must use all of his persuasive power to demand that Hosni Mubarak immediately declare that he will not seek reelection. The Egyptian dictator must be persuaded to appoint a caretaker government that will handle the daily affairs of the state, headed by a moderate member of the opposition like Mohammed ElBaradei. This might be the last chance to arrange an orderly transition to democracy, one wherein anti-democratic forces in any guise – religious, military, secular, or theocratic – cannot derail the democratic process.

For Egyptians, the history of the Iranian Revolution should serve as a warning. In 1978, Ayatollah Khomeini hid his true intentions – namely the creation of a despotic rule of the clerics – behind the mantle of democracy. More than once he promised that not a single cleric would hold a position of power in the future government. But once in power, he created the current clerical despotism. And when, in June 2009, three million people took to the streets of Tehran to protest decades of oppression, they were brutally suppressed.

With this history in mind, Egyptian democrats must not be fooled by the radical Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. If and when Mubarak falls, they simply cannot allow the most radical and brutal forces to win in the ensuing chaos. If these forces are allowed to claim power using the rhetoric of democracy, Egyptians will find themselves decades from now needing another uprising, which is precisely the current situation of the Iranian people.

The propaganda machine for the clerical regime in Tehran has been gloating about the similarities between the events of Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran and developments in Egypt now. It shamelessly claims that today’s uprising in Egypt is but an aftershock of the revolution in Iran. The Egyptian people must prove them wrong.

And not just for the sake of Egypt. For over a century, Egypt, like Iran, has been a bellwether state for the entire region. The arrival of freedom to Egypt would therefore put the Iranian mullahs on the defensive. Far from a repeat of 1979, the Egyptian uprising might begin to seem like a close cousin of 2009 – a true democratic revolt. This would give confidence to democrats across the Middle East. It would suggest that the tectonic plates in the region really are shifting away from despotism and dogma, toward democracy and reason. Inshallah!


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.