The Spectator

The world after Mubarak

Experts debate what happens next in Egypt and the countries around it

The world after Mubarak
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Experts debate what happens next in Egypt and the countries around it

In his retirement, Dwight Eisenhower admitted that the biggest foreign policy mistake of his presidency had been not supporting Anthony Eden over the Suez crisis. How right he was. If Arab nationalism had been strangled in its cradle in 1956 by the vigorous action that Eden, and also initially Hugh Gaitskell, prescribed, then the oil-price hikes of the early 1970s and all the economic woes that flowed from them would never have happened. I doubt there would have been a 9/11, either. Today, instead, we face a situation whereby, since half of Israel’s natural gas consumption comes from Egypt and because of Gaza’s geographical situation, regional catastrophe looms. We should abhor policy created by mobs, and assume that all revolutionary change will ultimately be for the worse, especially in a part of the world with so few model democracies. The future seems to be in the hands of the Cairo mob, which has been irresponsibly egged on by an American president desperate to be seen on the side of the nice middle-class liberals who are always the ultimate losers in revolutions. Far better the American president who said of the Latin American strongman: ‘He may be a sonofabitch, but at least he’s our sonofabitch.’

— Andrew Roberts, historian

The revolt against the Mubarak government is one of those fortunate moments when the United States does not have to choose between its moral sympathies and its strategic interests. Egypt is not a major oil producer like Saudi Arabia, so regime change will not threaten the supply of oil to world markets. US support for Mubarak has also been one of al-Qa’eda’s main reasons for targeting the United States, as well as a useful recruiting tool. Viewed strictly on its own, the US alliance with Mubarak has become a strategic liability, and America should now be seeking good relations with the Egypt that is to come.

A post-Mubarak government is unlikely to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, because doing so would immediately put it at odds with the United States and Europe and bring Cairo few tangible benefits. Nor would Israel be imperilled if the treaty were eventually to lapse, because Egypt’s military is no match for the Israeli armed forces. Cairo’s capabilities would deteriorate further once US military aid was cut off.

Post-Mubarak Egypt is likely to resemble contemporary Turkey: neither hostile nor subservient, and increasingly seeking to chart its own course. It will be more critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and less willing to maintain the counter-productive and cruel siege of Gaza. Yet this development might be precisely the sort of wake-up call that Israel needs, to help it realise that long-term security must rest not on military dominance but on being accepted by its neighbours. And the only way to do that is via a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

— Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University

It’s been said that ‘Tunisia is Poland’ and that 2011 will be the Arab world’s 1989 — and I hope it proves true. But in 1989, the overwhelming desire of central Europeans, as they themselves often put it, was to be ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ meant Western European. They wanted a ‘normal’ economy, meaning capitalist, and a ‘normal’ political system, meaning parliamentary democracy. Many countries in the region had a large, influential and Westernised alternative elite, a de facto political opposition, which aspired to join all of the ‘normal’ Western European institutions too, especially Nato and the European Union, and which in some cases was prepared to take over when communism collapsed. While I’m sure the Middle East also aspires to European standards of living, and while many also aspire to democracy and free markets, the path to those political systems in this region is far less obvious. Egyptians and Tunisians don’t all identify themselves with these values, and they won’t necessarily want to adopt European institutions overnight, as central Europe did. If there is an alternative elite in either Tunisia or Egypt, it has yet to come forward. Change is not always good.

— Anne Applebaum, Washington Post columnist

A Middle East expert tells me that ‘there are dark forces that most Egyptians don’t know exist’. With the Muslim Brotherhood, versed in hatred of Zionism, close to the levers of power, the immediate loser is certain to be Israel. When I was in Egypt three years ago, lecturing at Cairo University, I was struck by how bitterly young students in particular, including many girls in hijabs, opposed the 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel. It was, they claimed, a ‘betrayal of our Arab brethren’; i.e., the Palestinians.

Moderate instigators of revolution are seldom there at the end. In Egypt’s revolution of 1952, for example, the cosy figure of General Naguib was replaced by Nasser, who set the Middle East on fire. Though it is unlikely that any Egyptian regime would follow in the footsteps of Nasser and Sadat by declaring war on Israel, a hostile Egypt would be the very last thing Israel needs, what with a Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon on its northern flank and the constant menace of a nuclear Iran.

But so far almost everything Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has done has been contrary to the country’s real interests. In his refusal to give an inch on just Palestinian demands, he reminds one of another historic precedent: Gustav Stresemann, the ‘good German’ of Weimar, who — shortly before he died in 1929 — bemoaned, ‘I pledged myself to achieving a Franco-British-German accord... I gave and gave until my own followers turned against me. If they [the Allies] could have granted me just one concession, I could have won my people. But they gave nothing... That is my tragedy and their crime.’ Four years later Hitler moved in.

— Alistair Horne, historian

In 1969, the new German chancellor and Social Democrat Willy Brandt called upon his fellow countrymen ‘to dare more democracy’. Today we are being invited to do just that in the Arab world by the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt. Could this be the moment when the whole region is convulsed by a kind of unstoppable mass revolution? Or will the popular surge simply set free Islamist elements long suppressed by Mubarak? We will have to make up our minds about this quickly. If the opposition prevail, our ambivalence will be held against us. The prize of a democratic and stable Egypt is worth taking risks for. We should also take heart from the fact that there has been relatively little sign of anti-Americanism among the protestors so far. It is time, in other words, ‘to dare more democracy’.

— Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations, University of Cambridge

Mubarak is finished, and the Egyptians have a blank slate on which to redraw their country. They are accustomed to blaming Washington and Jerusalem for their ills, but now their future is in their own hands.

For years polls have shown that Egyptians want democracy but also sharia. This, of course, is a contradiction. The source of law can be God or the people, but it can’t be both. Egyptians are scarcely unique in their confusions. In Poland’s first election, Stanislaw Tyminski won 20 per cent of the vote, promising ‘a democracy of dollars’. In reality, democracy cannot guarantee dollars or sanctity or happiness but only, as the US Declaration of Independence nicely put it, the freedom to pursue happiness. In practice, democracy has delivered many goods to those who practise it: prosperity, civil peace, national resilience. But only with time. If Egyptians desire the same benefits we in the West enjoy, democracy is the right choice, but they will have to be patient, shun blame-placing, and spurn panaceas such as Islamism or the chimera of instant riches.

Once before they fell in love with a demagogue, Nasser, who set their country on a path of misery. May they act with more wisdom this time.

— Joshua Muravchik, fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

In my lifetime, the Egyptians have loved only one leader: the one that the Western world hated, Gamal Abdel Nasser. When he died in September 1970, five million people jammed the streets of Cairo to mourn him, far more than are demonstrating against the Mubarak regime. Eleven years later, in October 1981, I covered the funeral of his successor, Anwar Sadat, when the only people in attendance were foreign dignitaries. In 1974, when Sadat opened Egypt’s economy to the United States, his country was a net exporter of food. By the time he died, Egypt was dependent on American handouts. His death, like King Farouk’s departure in 1952, came as a relief. So too will the abdication of Hosni Mubarak. Although no Egyptian regime tolerated participatory democracy, only Nasser stood up to Britain and the US. Only Nasser reformed the economy to the benefit of the Egyptian majority. Only Nasser refused to enrich himself and his family at the expense of his countrymen. They loved him for it, as they loved no other leader. When he died, the people in the streets lamented, ‘There is no shade.’ The harsh sun of repression and corruption has burned them ever since.

— Charles Glass, journalist and Middle East specialist

I was living in Cairo during the bread riots of January 1977. The price of bread had gone up and the people were hungry. I was still in Egypt in February 1986 when the security forces rioted near the pyramids and burned the Holiday Inn. The people were still hungry! Since those bleak days Anwar Sadat’s open-door policy seemed to be working. Egypt was curing many of its ills. Infrastructure was mended. Tourism moved from under a million a year to over five million a year. But today the poor are still hungry. A middle class has not emerged. The police state has not given way to a free society. The rich keep getting richer. This month men and women, young and old, Christians and Muslims, marched side by side and let their message be heard. With an unbelievable dignity, with a non-violence reminiscent of Gandhi, they are letting the world know that their hunger runs beyond their bellies and the bellies of their children. Now they want freedom too!

This is not a message for Egypt alone. Nor is it only for the Arab world. The people of Egypt are mirroring what many in the world feel. Perhaps all of us should find the courage to walk with dignity into the town squares of the world and protest against the corruption that is making us all hungry.

— Cassandra Vivian, author of The Western Desert of Egypt

History always occurs at the wrong moments. Back in 2005, when Iraqis went to the polls for the first time, democracy in the Middle East seemed imaginable.

Two events shook its advocates: ongoing violence in Iraq and the election of Hamas in Gaza. These twin horrors made democrats shudder and allowed the stability-fetishists another round.

The Mubarak regime faltered in the wrong place at the wrong time. When Iran-ian students took to their streets in 2009 the US president remained silent. The region’s most destabilising government remained in place. But when America’s best ally in the region came under pressure, America pulled the rug away. The long-term import of these misjudgments will take time to sink in.

Mubarak’s reign was corrupt and stagnating. Its virtue lay not in its stability but in its bulwark effect against Egypt’s home-grown fascist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The risks they pose to the region and beyond are vastly underestimated, often, abroad, by their mouthpieces. But the movement’s century-long dream now has its greatest chance of realisation. Keeping them from power will have to be carefully managed. A problem with the aftermath of revolutions is that the people who seize power need not be the most popular, only the most organised. The best option for Egypt and the region is a steady transition. It must be seen to be homegrown and allow time for alternatives to the Islamists. This transition will not be terribly democratic and it will doubtless last too long. But it beats the alternatives.

— Douglas Murray, director, Centre for Social Cohesion