The Egyptian sphinx lashes out at Washington

Mubarak's criticism reflects his anger at Bush's policies -- and uneasiness about his growing domestic opposition.

Published May 25, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Egypt's alliance with the United States, a cornerstone of both countries' foreign policies since 1978, is under the severest strain it has witnessed in its nearly 30 years. This week at the Davos World Economic Forum, President Hosni Mubarak took a number of obvious swipes at U.S. policy. Mubarak's unusual criticisms reflected both his own uneasiness about the growing opposition to his regime -- for which Washington is partly responsible -- and his anger at Bush's disastrous policies in the region, which have produced an Iraq in flames and under the domination of fundamentalist parties, a deadlocked peace process and a Hamas government in Palestine, and a dangerous escalation of tensions with Iran. It is unclear how much impact on U.S. policies Mubarak will have. But that even America's most reliable Middle East pillars appear to be trembling should cause concern in the White House.

While seldom the focus of U.S. media attention, Egypt remains one of America's more important allies in the region. A string of terrorist bombings of its Red Sea resorts in the Sinai in recent years has caused some to raise questions about its stability. Probably more significant, the regime faces large public protests by both Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalists and liberal reformers incensed by the judiciary's lack of independence. A major protest is set for Thursday, inspiring consternation in the Mubarak regime. The police have arrested 200 members of the Muslim Brotherhood during the past week. A heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, at a time when Washington has pressed Egypt to open up its political system, could damage Egyptian relations with the United States. But Mubarak is more worried about the survival of his regime than his relations with the Bush administration.

The Egyptian president, despite the strains, still has influence in Washington. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, paying his first state visit to the United States, had hoped that President Bush would give an unconditional endorsement to his "convergence" plan, which involves consolidating Israeli colonists on the West Bank into a few large colonies, and then taking the land those colonies stand on from the Palestinians and declaring a new border for Israel that cuts into Palestinian territory.

Bush praised Olmert's plan, but did not go as far as the Israelis wanted. He insisted that Israel negotiate with the Palestinians, rather than simply impose the plan on them. Bush's position was in part influenced by President Mubarak's strong objections to Olmert's unilateralist approach. Mubarak announced that he would facilitate talks between the two sides, hosting Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Sharm El Sheikh. He told the delegates to the World Economic Conference on Saturday, "We shall never relax our efforts with either the Palestinians or Israelis in pushing them back toward the path of negotiations."

Without Egypt, it is difficult to see how the Bush administration's "road map to peace" could hope to go forward. It is true that the road map has essentially been dead for a long time. Nonetheless, keeping Mubarak's support for the "peace process," however stagnant it may be, is an important diplomatic goal.

Despite Mubarak's commitment to negotiations, he has soured on other U.S. initiatives. According to Al-Hayat, an Arabic-language London daily, he complained in his speech before the 1,200 movers and shakers of the Davos conference about the growing tendency toward economic protectionism among advanced countries, which has alarmed developing nations, who fear that their access to markets and global integration will be blocked. He said that globalization offers both potential benefits as well as drawbacks (among the latter, an increasing gap between the world's rich and poor, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction). Only cooperation between the advanced and developing countries, he said, can lead to globalization with a human face.

He then, however, launched into an implicit attack on Bush administration policies. He called for "a world that deals with weapons of mass destruction -- and in the first instance nuclear weapons -- without double standards." He urged that the Middle East be made a "nuclear-free zone." His implicit reference here was to the pass given by Bush to some countries, especially Israel but also India, with regard to their nuclear weapons programs, while taking a hard line with Iran, which is, unlike the others, a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

He went on to criticize heavy-handed interference in the affairs of Middle Eastern states, saying that what is appropriate to the region is internal reform "on the ground, which adopts a wise, gradualist approach that guarantees it will continue." He warned against "sudden, hasty initiatives with hurried results, which turn [reform] into chaos." His remarks were understood by participants at the conference to be a slam at the United States.

He said reform is not an end in itself: The real goal is improving the lives of the next generation. Reform, he said, must be achieved by "releasing the energies of our societies in all fields of endeavor, and respect for human rights, the constitution and law -- not by departing from them, resorting to chaos, and working outside the framework of legality." This passage of the speech also seems to be a criticism of the methods of the Bush administration, though it should be noted that the Mubarak regime has been known to work outside the framework of legality itself.

Mubarak complained that tensions have been raised in the region by the derailing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, "the Iraq war, the conflict over Iran's nuclear energy program, the situation in the Darfur region of the Sudan, and the tensions between Lebanon and Syria." Washington, of course, has been deeply involved in all of these situations, though with the exception of Iraq, hardly created them.

Mubarak criticized "those who believed that pushing for reform in the region is capable in itself of imposing a real solution on the Palestinian issue and a settlement that ignores international law and the practical foundations of peace." He continued, "I have warned repeatedly against this, and have emphasized that the opposite is the truth." He insisted that the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict remain the central issue for the security and stability of the Middle East. He said that a resolution of the Palestinian question will have an unlimited positive impact on all the other issues in the region.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif said before the opening of the conference that reform in Egypt "will not happen in a month, or two months, or six ... It will take years. And we have the time. We are not in a hurry." He pointed to the successes that Islamists had in the Egyptian elections last winter, when they gained 70 seats -- they now have 87 -- in the 454-member Parliament. He rejected the formation within Parliament of a "secret party bloc," a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a proscribed party.

Nazif continued, "As soon as you begin the [reform] process, you find that things happen. You see, for instance, that Islamists have achieved gains in Parliament here, and in Palestine, and in Iraq. For that reason, we have begun reviewing our position on what is happening." He said that despite this reconsideration, he does not think there is any room to reverse course from reform.

The Mubarak government, a hybrid military-civilian regime that mainly champions the interests of the country's newly wealthy and its middle classes, has fought a long struggle against fundamentalists such as the Muslim Brotherhood as well as terrorist splinter groups such as the Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Muslim Brotherhood is forbidden by law from running candidates in elections under its own banner, since recognized parties may not have a religious character. It therefore puts up candidates in other parties that are willing to run them.

Mubarak has clearly had it with the Bush administration's Middle East policies. He had warned Bush not to invade Iraq, predicting that such a move would create a thousand bin Ladens and throw the region into chaos. Bush refused to listen, and Mubarak can take little pleasure in having been right. Mubarak resisted Bush-style "democratization," which focused more on open elections than on the prerequisites of democracy. Bush's policies have allowed Shiite religious parties and now the Iraqi version of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood to dominate Iraq. Mubarak recently caused a stir when he alleged that Arab Shiites are more loyal to Iran than to their own countries.

And, the Bush approach to elections in the region is what allowed Hamas to come to power in the Palestinian Authority, a disastrous outcome, since neither the United States nor Israel will negotiate with what they consider a terrorist organization. This bizarre policy, of pushing for elections but then refusing to deal with the elected government, has doomed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to gridlock and threatens to punish ordinary Palestinians with food and medicine shortages. Mubarak has spent his political life making sure that fundamentalist parties never come to power in Egypt.

Mubarak has been most hurt of all by the open attacks on him by Bush administration officials whenever he has engaged in his ordinary practices as a soft dictator, such as jailing his liberal challenger, Ayman Nour, on corruption charges. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly chided him into allowing other politicians, including Nour, to run against him in the presidential elections last fall. Mubarak was humiliated by having to let Nour out of prison and countenance his going about the country campaigning against the president for life. Mubarak runs Egyptian elections the way Mayor Richard J. Daley used to run Chicago elections. So, of course, Mubarak won handily against Nour, and then promptly jailed his opponent again.

Then in the parliamentary elections of November and December 2005, Muslim Brotherhood candidates running under other party banners took an unprecedented 87 seats, despite police repression of their campaign rallies and extensive arrests of Brotherhood activists throughout 2005. Some in Egypt believe that so many were allowed to be seated because Mubarak wanted to send a message to Bush and Rice that if they persisted with their pressure for democratization, they would only achieve a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the biggest country in the Arab world.

Ever since it agreed to make peace with Israel in 1978, Egypt has received $1.8 billion a year in military and civilian aid from the United States. According to the Washington Post, Congress, having noted the jailing of Nour, is beginning to think about reducing that amount and insisting that Egypt give a better accounting of how it is spent. (As with most U.S. foreign aid, much of the money has to be spent on U.S. goods and so actually goes to U.S. corporations, though the Egyptian government receives the materiel bought with it.) The Bush administration may have begun backing off its earlier pressure on Mubarak. At a recent hearing Assistant Secretary of State David Welch testified that withholding any of the aid to Egypt "would be damaging to our national interests." Nevertheless, tens and perhaps hundreds of millions may be cut out of the aid package if critics such as David Obey, D-Wis., have their way.

Mubarak appears to be resisting Bush's push for democratization most of all because he is grooming his son, Gamal Mubarak, as his successor. Gamal created a furor at the Davos Conference by showing up with his stunning young dyed-blond Egyptian fiancée, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo, on his arm. This attempt to project an image of glamour and of having settled down domestically may telegraph a push by Gamal, 42, to assume the mantle of heir apparent. Mubarak once imprisoned sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim for having complained about the system of "repubarchy," or republican monarchy, in the Arab world, whereby presidents for life are often succeeded by their sons.

Gamal Mubarak was sent on a secret mission to Washington on May 12, where he met with national security advisor Stephen Hadley, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney and Rice. President Bush briefly greeted him. The press speculated that Gamal was pleading with Washington to cease its pressure on the regime, which faces the prospect of civil unrest -- in part because of the expectations raised by Rice's rhetoric on democratization.

Certainly there is no evidence that Mubarak is liberalizing. When Judge Ahmad Bastawisi criticized electoral irregularities, he was reprimanded by the courts, a clear signal that the regime would not countenance genuine judicial independence. Other dissident judges have protested being reined in, and have joined forces with popular protesters upset about the government crackdown on liberal opponents. On May 18, police brutally put down a rally in Cairo by the Kefaya (Enough!) Party, and certainly are prepared to deal with Thursday's planned protests in the same way.

Mubarak has survived longer than most rulers in the bad neighborhood of the Middle East. His predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was cut down after only 11 years in 1981 by the bullets of a member of al-Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad. At home, Mubarak has succeeded by a combination of ruthlessness with enemies and cultivation of the army and the new Egyptian wealthy classes. Abroad, he has survived through cooperativeness with Washington. The Bush administration has upended that formula, by making it more problematic for Mubarak to be completely ruthless at home -- with the result that the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time forms a powerful bloc in the Egyptian Parliament. Elsewhere in the region, Bush has pursued revolutionary policies that Egypt cannot support, such as invading and attempting to reshape Iraq, or allowing Hamas to come to power in the Palestinian Authority and then cutting it off completely.

Egypt's political future is unclear. The country has been remarkably politically stable despite an authoritarian government, a high population growth rate, and lack of measurable economic progress. The reasons for this relative political stability are difficult to trace. The regime is careful to please the rural middle classes. Some pressure is taken off the regime by the high number of Egyptian guest workers abroad, especially in the oil states, and the remittances they send home and businesses they later found. Egypt's tourism industry is huge, worth billions every year, and so many people benefit from it that few have an interest in disrupting society in such a way as to scare the tourists off. (Thus, the bazaar merchants in Iran in the late 1970s funded Khomeini, but Egypt's shopkeepers seem to like the status quo, and if they want change, want it to be gradual and orderly.) The government has several sources of substantial "rent" that prop it up -- U.S. aid, tolls on the Suez Canal, Sinai petroleum, and cotton sales. The question is whether this apparent stability is artificial and whether the transition from Mubarak to whatever succeeds him will suddenly roil society.

Mubarak is deeply dismayed at what he considers the mess Washington has made in his neighborhood, and at the way Rice has more or less incited his own people against him.

Since Bush's grand projects in the region have crashed and burned, Mubarak has been emboldened to push back against pressures to open up. Washington's overweening ambition may actually have set back reform. If Iraq is what "democratization" looks like, few in the region would want to buy into it. When push comes to shove, Mubarak will choose the old tried-and-true methods at home over closeness with Washington, especially if that is what it takes to ensure that Gamal succeeds him and that the Brotherhood remains on the sidelines. That is probably the message that Gamal really brought to Washington earlier this month -- and that Washington, for all its lip service to democracy, probably signed off on.

If Washington is returning to realism, after its flights of Wilsonian fancy, it will have made things much worse, raising popular expectations and then once again dashing them. In the end, the United States prefers sclerotic regimes that don't threaten U.S. interests to democracies that do. The people of the Middle East know this, and it is a main source of their anger at us.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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Egyptian Protests Iraq War Middle East