Mubarak’s Failure: Lessons From Egypt

The nine-day old turmoil in Egypt shows no sign of letting up despite Hosni Mubarak’s assurances that he will step down in September. His pledge to forego his pro forma re-election as Egypt’s President is part of an effort to take the momentum away from the burgeoning opposition. The U.S. urges the move mainly because it does not want Egypt to end up like Iran after the last Shah. Iran’s staunch support of the U.S. went the way of the DoDo bird when Muslim extremists dethroned Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although the ruling Ayatollahs have since given way to a popularly elected President, the Iranian government remains firmly in the anti-American camp.

The obvious way to avoid another Iran is for a secular, moderate regime to replace Mubarak. While this advice is simple enough and emanates from many quarters, it comes with very little counsel on how to accomplish the objective.

The biggest problem with formulating a workable plan for moderate succession is that there are no moderates in leadership positions in Egypt. The person who appears closest to fitting the bill, Nobel Laureate Mohammed al-Baradei, is proving to be a pawn of a radical Muslim coalition. A sheep as frontman for a wolf pack is a tried and too true vehicle for extremist succession to power in the Middle East. Just look at the recent experience of Lebanon, a few countries away.

The absence of moderate leadership in Egypt is the result of two factors. The first is a deliberate Mubarak strategy to get rid of moderates. The second is the passive complicity of the U.S. in that strategy. In order to cement his rule, Mubarak wanted to keep anyone approaching middle-of-the-road away from a political power base. The best opposition he could have had, of course, was no opposition, but coming in a close second was a radical opposition.

Extremists as the only alternative gave Mubarak a lock on the job of ruling Egypt, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned. U.S. approval was a critical part of Hosni’s president-for-life plan. And it was a nice run while it lasted. In exchange for a few billion U.S. dollars annually, Mubarak’s Egypt was an ally in a region with pitifully few of them. But, what now? It remains to be seen whether the U.S. can dance its way to a successful resolution of the moderate successor problem.

What about next time? If we’re going to meddle, we need to get it right. We’re not talking rocket science here. Blame seems to follow us wherever we go, regardless. If we’re in for a penny, we should be willing to go the whole pound. Set the stage for long-term success from the beginning so we’re not scrambling around trying to avoid an early exit. Don’t let the local dictator be our only ally in his country. Give ourselves a viable replacement candidate by nurturing a credible, moderate political voice.

But, should we be meddling at all? If we could start over with the knowledge we have today, maybe our course in Middle East affairs would have been different. But, we can’t start over, which means we have to figure out how to deal successfully with the problems we face now. And we have two big ones.

Because of our heavy dependence on oil, when the Middle East sneezes, our economy catches a cold. The Egyptian crisis this week has threatened the economic stability of the U.S. on several levels, reinforcing the importance of moderate leadership in the region.

Our economic dependence aside, the powder keg atmosphere in the Middle East is a huge problem in itself. The next nuclear threat is as likely to come from an extremist organization as an extremist country. Seeing us pull out of Iraq today and Afghanistan tomorrow, with the purpose of our presence unfulfilled, significantly emboldens those who would do us harm. If we’re going to support moderates, we have to get that job done, too, or why bother.

See you on the left side.