Egyptian Unrest: Dynasty, Devolution, or Revolution?

Egypt clashes

Is what is happening in Egypt today, and Tunisia earlier, the harbinger of viral unrest with consequences akin to the French Revolution of 1789 or the Russian Revolution of 1917 but in real time?

Or, is this unrest a localized protest over the continuing absence of jobs, food and political inclusion that so far lacks an ideological motivation and is unlikely to spread throughout the region?

Will these protests lead to devolution of power in some meaningful form including President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation or to a real Egyptian revolution? And will greater “democratization” actually address the basic economic and political causes of these protests and revolts in Egypt?

So far, the answers are in the category of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.”

Before drawing grand conclusions about what this unrest may mean, context is important. First, suppose Mubarak had moved for real reforms years ago with a more open government. Would economic conditions such as poverty and lack of jobs been better, worse or about the same?

Second, of the external powers, only the United States has visibly and publicly interjected itself into Egyptian politics. The Obama administration has been walking a fine line between supporting an old ally and democratic forces that could become hijacked by well-organized radicals. But how much influence can America exert and what is its track record in fashioning outcomes favorable to its interests and policies in similar circumstances of public protest?

Third, history matters. Unlike the West, neither the Middle East nor its majority Islamic religion has a democratic tradition. Dynasties, not ballot boxes, have ruled. And unlike Christianity, Islam hasn’t undergone either a Martin Luther reformation or a Renaissance. Will these differences count in the 21st century? And, more recently, we cannot recreate the mistakes following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in early 2003 and the failure to plan for the post-war. What happens in Egypt for the long term will matter more than simply Mubarak stepping down.

Regarding the economic and political forces that have precipitated this wave of Egyptian protests, it isn’t self-evident that democratic rule in Egypt would have sufficiently improved living standards to quell public reaction. Egypt remains a poor and in many places an overpopulated country. Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Persian Gulf states have the resources. Yet, revolutionary democratic change given the specter of radical Islam is a potential nightmare.

America’s record in affecting potentially revolutionary events, since winning its own, has generally been poor. During the Cold War, America supported autocratic anti-Communist leaders not democrats. King Farouk of Egypt, the Shah of Iran and Fernando Marcos among others were exhibits A as well as Vietnam.

The implosion of the Soviet Union that led to a Europe whole and free (with a few exceptions) allowed long-established democratic roots to take hold. That isn’t true in the Middle East where there is no democratic tradition and dynasties have ruled for centuries.

Egyptians’ access to food, jobs, enfranchisement and a say in government are driving the opposition’s protests — as intolerable treatment and denial of basic rights of Englishmen drove America’s revolutionaries in 1775. Ideology is largely missing in Egyptian protests — remarkable because Egypt has been the font for much of Islamic radicalism and for personalities who have advanced and are advancing this case for revolution.

Mubarak has been obstinate and, unlike the Shah but like Iran’s ruling “mullahocracy” today, has and will use some level of force to contain public demonstrations and protests or to allow chaos to sap public outrage. Moral suasion won’t work. And U.S. President Barack Obama cannot persuade Mubarak with brilliant argument or awe him into submission by personal intimidation.

Indeed, aggressive pursuit of human rights demands by this administration will almost certainly backfire in Egypt. And Mubarak’s fallback position will be to relinquish power to his supporters in the new government that will hardly guarantee greater democracy or to elections that will assure reform.

As in Afghanistan, the United States has no good options in Egypt. The one fragile tool the United States has is economic leverage through the $1.5 billion sent to Egypt annually since the Camp David peace accords with Israel in 1979. And that leverage is weak.

America’s political debate over what to or not to do isn’t relevant because we lack the tools to alter outcomes and haven’t found the means to create a countervailing or leveraging strategy that will influence events in Egypt.

For one of the few times in its capacity as a superpower, the United States must keep its own counsel. Domestic reaction from left and right will be intense and it was domestic politics that no doubt persuaded Obama to inform the public on nationwide television of his conversation with Mubarak just minutes before.

Maybe it’s time to speak more softly whether or not we have a big or any stick while conjuring up contingency plans from B to Z with great haste because what comes post-Mubarak will determine ultimately success or failure for Egypt.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.

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