As the Egyptian revolution marks its first year, the optimism with which so many journalists, analysts, and diplomats greeted the popular revolt seems misplaced. With Islamists winning a 75 percent share in a parliament tasked with writing a new constitution, the chance for liberalism or democracy to emerge appears poor. Instead, Egypt—a country in which one in three Middle Eastern Arabs live—appears poised to become a retrograde force for generations, much as Iran did in 1979.
Remembering the real Mubarak
In hindsight, it is easy to wish the United States had stood by Hosni Mubarak, but solidarity with Egypt’s hated strongman would have been foolish. Basing American national security on the longevity of cancer-stricken octogenarians is seldom a long-term strategy. There was no reason for Washington to embrace Hosni’s son Gamal when even the Egyptian military balked at doing so. Unlike Iran, Egypt was not a monarchy, and Egyptians made it clear that they did not seek a hereditary republic.
Nor was Egypt under Mubarak as pro-American as many remember. In 2009, Egypt voted with the United States at the United Nations with less frequency than did Burma, Cuba, Somalia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. Mubarak was not the secular stalwart who so many remember, either. After crushing an Islamist insurgency in the early 1990s, he sought to co-opt Islamists, even as he tried to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood’s formal apparatus. Who can forget an Egyptian state court ordering Naser Hamid Abu Zayd, an Islamic studies professor who had angered Islamists, forcibly divorced from his wife on the grounds that religious authorities had declared him no longer a Muslim? Mubarak directed that the Egypt-Israel peace should be cold; state media and state-controlled trade unions flooded the airwaves with anti-Israel and anti-American vitriol. Had successive American administrations not tolerated Egyptian incitement over the airwaves or in schools, the younger generations of Egyptians might not be so full of hate.
The Islamist victory should reinforce the importance of providing active support for liberals even if it antagonizes dictators. Sycophancy is counter-productive. Nor is leading from behind cost-free: In Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, the Obama administration’s willingness to work through Qatar and Turkey, countries that export Islamism, was a tremendous mistake. Woe to any official who takes Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s endorsement of secularism seriously; after all, Turkey speaks with its wallet, and Erdoğan’s track record suggests his animosity toward a separation of mosque and state. Leading from behind was the final nail in liberalism’s coffin.
This blog is a part of an Enterprise symposium, “Egyptian Revolution: One Year Later.”