Below, something I wrote and published on Feb 3, in the National Post.
An article posted today on Al Jazeera English by Amis Landoni largely agrees with my take -- that there is reason to be concerned that the Arab revolts/future regimes will be less pro-American or pro-Israeli than what they replace. Though the Al Jazeera poster is, unlike me, not exactly "concerned" about this, but instead quite excited at the prospect. She'd rather like to see some more-than-just-rhetorical anti-Westernism come to power. The Nasser period was such a positive time....
The difference between me and Ms. Landoni is that I hope to be proved wrong. She will be very disappointed in the Arab people if they prove her wrong and fail to use their new democracy (should Egypt and others in the region ever achieve that -- still a big if) to increase their opposition to America's interests, and in particular to increase their support for the Palestinian cause.
Egypt will make Washington wish its allies really were puppets.
(First published Feb 3, 2011, National Post)
By Tony Keller
So he’s going. Eventually. Maybe in eight months. Unless the protests grow. Which they will. In which case the timetable could be speeded up. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is on his way out, and something more democratic is going to try to take the old regime’s place. It’s only a matter of time.
That’s the good news. Drink it in. Enjoy. And now, the caveats. We shouldn’t have any illusions that this revolution is necessarily going to result in a fully democratic, law-abiding, rights-respecting government. It might, but there are no guarantees. Egypt could end up with a new military regime: populist and demagogic, as Gamal Abdel Nasser was, but not democratic. Or it might get something like the Iranian revolution, which replaced a monarchy with a dictatorship pretending to be a democracy. Egypt could get one man, one vote, one time.
Nor should we have any illusions that even if a democratic government does emerge, it will be pro-Western, or friendly toward Israel.
And as for Washington’s ability, to control events within Egypt, now or in the future, well, don’t have any illusions about that either. Mubarak may have accepted billions of dollars in U.S. aid over the years, but Egypt has never been an American puppet.
The Cairo-Washington alliance, which arose in the 1970s, was based on a long list of shared interests, such as opposing Islamic fundamentalism, opposing Iran, avoiding another Arab-Israeli war, and seeking a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Washington and the new Egypt may find themselves looking at a shorter list of common interests. Possibly much shorter.
In his two televised addresses since the protests began, Mubarak has tried to play on the idea that if he leaves, disorder will follow; that he and his police are all that stands between Egypt and anarchy. By removing police from the streets, he certainly seems to be trying to make those fears come to pass. The international community has the same worries about what change in Egypt means for international order, except that its very real concerns don’t have to be manufactured by a Mubarak PR campaign.
The current Egyptian government may make life unhappy for its own people, but at least it’s not making life hell for its neighbours. Mubarak’s Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and more than that, it quietly co-operates with Israel. Just like Washington and the European Union, it sees Syria and Iran as threats, not friends. Ditto for Hezbollah. It backs the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas. It wants regional stability, not regional war.
We don’t know exactly what the new Egypt is going to want, but nobody should be surprised if it ends up pursuing a foreign policy far less favourable to the West’s interests, and Israel’s. That depressing likelihood has echoed through the pages of Israeli newspapers over the past few days. The sense that the peace treaty with Egypt may be under threat has Israelis wondering if they are once again about to find themselves surrounded by hostile states, a situation they have not faced in a generation.
The new Egypt might follow Turkey, whose moderate Islamist government disrupted its predecessors’ alliance with Israel, and instead sought friction with Israel as a way of satisfying its voting base. Or things could turn out worse. The demonstrations of the past week have been largely secular, and largely non-partisan, which is a very hopeful sign. But the protests have not been led by a political party, nor have they given birth to one (at least not yet). The only major party in Egypt, other than Mubarak’s NDP, is the banned Muslim Brotherhood. That is who is mostly likely to win an election, if one were held immediately. Hamas, which controls Gaza and rejects peace with Israel, is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.
Earlier this week, Sheikh Naeem Quassem, the secretary general of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, said that he and his party “salute the resistant and proud Egyptian people who have set an example in rejecting normalization with Israel and in their continuous aspiration for freedom, independence and glory.” Hezbollah is stretching the truth: The protests in the streets are largely about Egypt’s economic failures and its lack of civil and political rights, not its relations with Israel. But there was a time when the peace treaty was seen as the main sin of the regime. Peace is why Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and why Egypt was kicked out of the Arab League from 1979 to 1989.
And there are signs that some protestors see a related matter, the alliance with the United States, as one of the main humiliations visited on Egypt by Mubarak. Mubarak is sometimes pictured as an agent of the Americans, as if the regime had been brought to Egypt on a CIA plane. Watch enough al-Jazeera and you’ll hear the idea expressed. The notion is sometimes even hinted at in the Western media — the fact that Egypt gets more than $1-billion a year in U.S. aid apparently being proof that Mubarak is a Washington creation. It’s ridiculous. Mubarak may be America’s problem, but he isn’t America’s fault.
Mubarak is the appointed successor of Sadat, himself the appointed successor to Nasser, whose military regime, which has been ruling under emergency powers since the 1960s, started out as an explicitly anti-Western revolutionary movement. It overthrew a pro-Western government, and Britain and France went to war against it 1956. It became a Soviet ally. It was only in the 1970s, after the death of Nasser, that the regime moved away from the Soviet Union and towards the West, as Sadat realized that endless war with Israel was a game that had to be stopped.
The men running Egypt are not American puppets, any more than the men running China are American puppets for having given up global revolution and embraced global trade. Washington didn’t put them in power, Washington didn’t keep them in power. Egypt is not a dictatorship because Washington wished it; Egypt will not become a successful democracy just because Washington wishes it.
And yet there are times when Washington surely wonders how much easier life would be if its allies really were nothing more than marionettes. The next few years of dealing with Egypt is going to be one of those times.