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Monday, January 31, 2011

You dance with the one that brung ya

The title of this post is a folksy expression that is supposed to convey a message of reluctant loyalty... even in the face of a subsequent/better offer.

The protests in Egypt are finally getting around to the blame phase. It isn't enough that the country has been living under one occupier and/or dictator after another for the last few centuries. The Egyptian 'street' has suddenly decided that everything is the U.S. and Israel's fault for having propped up Mubarak's government.

I won't venture to speak for the Americans, but it is worth noting that Egypt is #2 after Israel in terms of receiving US foreign aid. So yes, there is something to the claim that the US has supported the soon-to-be-ended Mubarak regime.

But Israel hasn't exactly had much say in Egyptian politics.

We signed a peace agreement with Egypt under Anwar Sadat in 1979; an agreement for which he paid with his life, and for which Egypt was expelled from the Arab League.

The Israelis brought the entire Sinai Peninsula to the bargaining table. The Egyptians brought a pen. In the end Egypt took everything except Gaza. No matter how Menachem Begin begged Sadat to take control of Gaza (and their Palestinian brothers) as part of the deal, the Egyptians knew better than to assume control of that hornet's nest.

Surprisingly, a majority of Egyptians seemed to, at least tacitly, support the peace agreement with Israel. I guess they got tired of seeing Israeli tanks crossing the Suez Canal. Whatever the reason, after Sadat was terminally retired from office, Mubarak - another Dictator - took control, and it wasn't until 2003 that the stirrings of a pro-democracy movement began to be heard in Egypt.

During those 24 years, Israel couldn't very well be accused of propping up Mubarak, since no reasonable alternative had presented itself. Even if we had the ability to topple Mubarak at any point during his tenure... why would we have? If being a dictator was reason enough to justify Israeli adventurism and attempted regime change, we would have to go after most of the leaders in the region.

No, so long as all remained quiet on the western front, we were happy to let the Egyptians worry about Egypt. And so Israel and Egypt have enjoyed a frosty peace with mostly one-sided economic benefits (Israeli tourism to Egypt is quite common. Egyptian tourism to Israel is nearly unheard of). But I wouldn't call what Israel was doing 'propping up Mubarak'. We mostly kept our part of the peace agreement and provided lots of tourists, as well as markets for Sinai Bedouin smugglers' goods.


But now that Mubarak's government seems doomed to be toppled by the protests, the Egyptians need someone to blame for their having sat quietly in slavery for all those years... and the US and Israel are always handy targets.

Personally, I'm torn about what's going to happen. On the one hand, I think any oppressed society that shrugs off its shackles is a good thing. A great cartoon that is making the rounds pretty much says it all:

Egypt_V


Granting the people free speech (or having them take it by force) is never a bad thing. As my friend in Louisiana correctly pointed out, "There is ONE reason and ONE reason only that a government would want the power to shut down the free and uncontrollably fast exchange of information that is the Internet, and that is to stifle the exchange of ideas."

But I can't help thinking about another government overthrow that began as a student uprising against a despot; The Iranian Revolution. It started in 1978 with widespread protests against the Shah, and climaxed in the beginning of 1979 with the Islamists taking charge. The students had thrown out a dictatorial leader, and for lack of backing or experience, had brought in a dictatorial system.

The situation in Egypt could easily go the same way. The Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to destabilize the Mubarak government for years, and they must be tickled pink at the current state of things. The question is, once the government falls, what will the transfer of power look like?

Is anyone or anything strong enough to assume control and restore order without resorting to the same kind of strong-arm tactics that triggered the protests in the first place? I don't think so. IMHO, an active blogosphere/twitterscape and a semi-independent press is not going to be enough to carry the day in a society that has no experience with democracy.

Opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who allowed the Iranians to build their nuclear program beyond the point of return or destruction), will need some powerful friends in order to assume control... and a bunch of enthusiastic students won't be enough. He will need the backing of the Islamists and the military (a horrifying combination, if you stop to think about it)... and he will inevitably make a deal with the devil to assume (and retain) power.

The scariest part (for Israel) is that the Muslim Brotherhood has been threatening to tear up the Israel/Egyptian peace agreement if they ever come to power. That might be the price of their support. If so, we'll have to do whatever is necessary to ensure our security.

But that will be a tragedy if it comes to pass. Egypt was the first Muslim country to break the ice and recognize Israel. That first baby step allowed for other official, and not-so-official, diplomatic contacts to be made between Israel and some of our other neighbors. The Egypt/Israel peace accord was the crucial first step in a cautious regional dance that may one day (please G-d) allow us to have relatively normal relations with most, or even all of our neighbors.

So, if by chance the new Egyptian leader (whoever it may turn out to be) doesn't set aside the peace agreement, Israel will make nice with whoever sits to our west... even if they turn out to be another brand of dictator. Because we don't get to pick our neighbors. We're here to stay, and in diplomacy, as with any social occasion, 'you dance with the one that brung ya'.

[Update: The Muslim Brotherhood has just announced that they want to form an opposition comittee to be headed by ElBaradei. Well, now it's official.]

Posted by David Bogner on January 31, 2011 | Permalink

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My friend Houston Steve made a good observation at breakfast the other day, pointing out that in virtually every historical example of a successful revolution (i.e., one that succeeds in overthrowing the existing government), the populist movement that galvanizes the support for change - thus allowing the movement to succeed - inevitably ends up handing its new-found power over to a successor group that is better-organized and far more ruthless. Examples are (among many others) the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Iranian revolution. In the latter, the students led the takeover... but it was the clerics who ended up seizing and holding power. And we all know what happened to Kerensky et al. in 1917.

In Egypt, the popular will may succeed in eliminating (or seriously weakening) Mubarak - but the popular will is disorganized, inchoate. Organized forces like the Muslim Brotherhood will move in, and it ain't gonna be pretty.

Posted by: Elisson | Feb 1, 2011 5:08:37 AM

Israel, likes to call itself the only democracy in a sea of Arab dictatorships…well now we have this ‘democracy’ actually calling for the western powers to SUPPORT one of those Arab dictatorships! one to remember next time a zionist makes his shrill claims.

Posted by: Atlanta Roofing HQ | Feb 1, 2011 8:46:56 AM

@Atlanta Roofing HQ - Assuming you live here in Georgia and enjoy the benefits of living in a civilized Western country with freedom of expression, and assuming you read my comment above, the result of the unrest in Egypt will end up being anything BUT a democracy when all is said and done. Populist uprisings inevitably start with democratic aspirations... and they get replaced promptly by better-organized people who don't give a rat's ass about democracy. Look at Iran. Look at the Soviet Union. When the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt, there will be zero democracy... and those folks are no friend to America or the West, either.

Now go take your Jew-hating ass away and peddle your papers elsewhere.

(David, I apologize for the tone of my remarks. Feel free to edit or delete them if you feel that they are inappropriate or violate your comments policy.)

Posted by: Elisson | Feb 1, 2011 5:19:10 PM

Egypt is a military dictatorship,and I don`t see that changing no matter elections or what civilian front men are put forward. The economy and the military depend on tourism,energy, and stability. Once Mubarak is gone, count on the generals to protect their political and economic interests.

Posted by: ED | Feb 1, 2011 6:34:24 PM

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