The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
With Hosni Mubarak's announcement yesterday that he would not seek a new term as president, the Mubarak era in Egypt came to an ignominious end. Although the Egyptian military may yet find a way to allow for a relatively graceful exit, Mubarak's historical legacy is sure to be colored by the very factors that led to his downfall: political alienation, economic dislocation, corruption, and the precipitous decline in Egypt's regional influence. After the chaos of this past week, not even his claim to have brought stability to Egypt will survive.
Yet the seeds of Mubarak's demise were sowed long ago. Although he came to power promising reform and vowing not to seek more than one term, Mubarak quickly became enamored with the power of the presidency and saw himself as indispensable to Egypt's future. He had witnessed first hand the drawbacks of Gamal Abdel Nasser's experiments with socialism and Arab nationalism and Anwar Sadat's efforts to correct the excesses of both. Instead, Mubarak eschewed ideology for a bland pragmatism that emphasized "stability for the sake of development" -- hardly an appealing political vision. He built a small, narrow constituency for his rule among big business, the police, and the army and relied on force and the threat of violence to keep the population under control.
By the end, Mubarak's disdain for the Egyptian people was so complete that last November, when the opposition sought to establish a shadow parliament after stunningly fraudulent parliamentary elections, he smirked and declared before his rubber-stamp People's Assembly, "Let them have fun."
The United States was not responsible for the inequity of Mubarak's rule, but it did enable and benefit from it. Mubarak was long Washington's man in Cairo: he kept open the Suez Canal, repressed the Islamists, and maintained peace with Israel. In return, the United States provided much for Egypt, contributing billions in economic assistance over the years to build up the country's infrastructure, agricultural technology, and public health programs. Yet this U.S. assistance, while certainly contributing to Egypt's development, also served to undermine the nationalist legitimacy of the regime. After all, how could Mubarak boast of Egyptian pride and ability when USAID employees were nestled in many government ministries?
At the same time, Egyptians came to see that their country's foreign policy was being warped for the sake of U.S. largesse -- and that the jackboots of the Interior Ministry awaited those who objected too loudly to this bargain. The original sin was Sadat's separate peace with Israel, which Mubarak inherited and scrupulously upheld.
From the perspective of many Egyptians, this arrangement hopelessly constrained Cairo's power while freeing Israel and the United States to pursue their regional interests unencumbered. Without the threat of war with Egypt, Israel poured hundreds of thousands of Israelis into settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, invaded Lebanon (twice), declared Jerusalem its capital, and bombed Iraq and Syria. For the United States, Mubarak was pivotal in creating a regional order that made it easier and less expensive for Washington to pursue its interests, from the free flow of oil to the protection of Israel and the prevention of any one country in the region from becoming too dominant. The benefits to Mubarak were clear: approximately $70 billion in economic and military aid over 30 years and the ostensible prestige of being a partner of the world's superpower.
For Egypt, the particular policy ramifications of this deal have been plentiful, including Egypt's deployment of 35,000 troops to Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War of 1991, its quiet support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, its implicit alliance with Israel during the war in Lebanon in 2006, and its complicity with Israel in the ongoing blockade of Gaza. Mubarak believed that these policies served Egypt's interests -- at least how he defined them -- but they ran directly against the grain of Egyptian public opinion.
Mubarak thus faced two irreconcilable positions: he could either be Washington's man or a man of the people -- but not both. He chose the former and tried to fill in the resulting legitimacy gap with manipulation and force.
It is no surprise, then, that the relationship between Egypt and the United States runs like a live wire through the popular opposition to Mubarak's rule. As protesters in Cairo declared in March 2003, just as U.S. forces were pouring into Iraq, only a democratic Egypt would be able to resist Israeli and U.S. policies in the Middle East. More recently, opponents of Mubarak expressed a similar sentiment, calling Mubarak's presidency the "Camp David regime."
No Egyptian leader will make Mubarak's mistake again, which does not portend well for Washington's position in the Middle East. In the coming days, analysts and policymakers in the United States will voice loud recriminations of decades of U.S. policy. This debate will not focus on finding out who "lost" Egypt; Mubarak had become odious to most in the United States except his paid consultants and a few remaining die-hard supporters. Instead, commentators will argue over how to deal with the sudden explosion of Arab people power and how to fortify Washington's allies in the region. Yet simply retooling U.S. assistance to focus on promoting democracy, creating benchmarks for a new Egyptian government, and making Washington's expectations (whatever they are) known to Egyptian political actors is unlikely to influence the trajectory of Egypt's transition.
The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship. Expecting the new Egyptian president -- whoever that may be -- to carry on a partnership with Washington is like Václav Havel asking the Soviets for assistance after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in 1989. To be sure, there are no Havels in Egypt, and Washington is not Soviet-era Moscow -- but the analogy rings true enough for those people in Cairo's Tahrir Square or the Alexandria corniche who saw U.S.-made F-16s fly overhead or were choked by tear gas produced in the United States.
The urge among many in Washington to try to shape Egyptian political change betrays the belief that Egyptians have no agency, politics, or interests of their own. This attitude is the product of an old canard, popular among regime loyalists and some old Middle East scholars, that Egyptians are preternaturally passive and will always seek stability. Yet the nationalist revolution in 1919, the Free Officers'coup in 1952, the student revolts in 1968 and 1972, the broad-based opposition to Sadat at the end of his tenure in the early 1980s, and the last decade of street protests suggest otherwise. Clearly, Egyptians can help themselves.
Where, then, does this leave Washington? The best the United States can do to salvage its position in Egypt is for President Barack Obama to make a statement in support of a democratic, tolerant, and pluralist Egypt -- and then get out of the way to let Egyptians build a new political system. Obama's statement calling for a "meaningful transition" was particularly important, because it indicates that Washington will not look kindly upon a shift from Mubarak to Omar Suleiman or some other regime figure.
Washington has become such a negative factor in Egyptian politics that it risks doing more harm than good if U.S. officials give in to the temptation to do much more than emphasize so-called "first principles" on a peaceful, orderly, and transparent political change. Implicit demands that call into question the continuation of the U.S. assistance package or even suggestions on how Egyptians should proceed after the Mubarak era will be met with tremendous resistance from those seeking to lead, if only because Egypt's politicians will need to demonstrate their nationalist credibility.
But such restraint seems beyond the U.S. diplomatic character, especially if the Egyptian political arena gets messy. Still, Washington would be wise to remember that a handful of grants from the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a few USAID projects, and expressions of deep concern are unlikely to have much influence as Egypt's disparate political groups wage a struggle among themselves.
What sort of political future will emerge in Egypt is hard to predict. At the very least, however, Egypt does have a parliamentary history. The country's 1923 constitution established a parliament that functioned on and off to varying degrees until the Free Officers' Revolution in 1952. This era was destabilized by the British presence in Egypt, which ultimately ushered in Nasser and his comrades, who constructed the regime against which Egyptians are currently rebelling. Washington does not occupy Egypt, but it risks playing a malevolent role in the transition if it tries to interfere. The United States should learn the lessons of the past, stand aside, and let the Egyptians pick up where they left off when the Free Officers took over.