The BBC World Service interviewed the always-insightful Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday afternoon about events in Egypt. It's a good thing I don't scream at stupidity on the radio in the same way I scream at stupidity on teevee.
Gelb's line was simple: the Egyptian protestors cannot be supported because they may be under the direct control of Islamic radicals or, at best, the unwilling catspaws of the same Islamists (who may still be at work trying to subvert Tunisia too!). Thus, the United States government must support Hosni Mubarak, because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate. Push Mubarak to reform, but still support him.
This is not just the consensus establishment position. Linda Chavez on NPR, taking David Brook’s place during the weekly tte–tte with E. J. Dionne, could not stop talking about Islamists and the threat of the Ikhwan al Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood) taking advantage of the unrest to seize power and turn Egypt into a central part of the Caliphate. Dionne, a liberal, did not contest this understanding.
I understand this view – Mubarak or the Awful Green Menace — has, over the last few days, become a fairly uniform view held by those on the right. And it’s why it’s good to be opposed to "democracy" in the Arab world today, as opposed to a few years ago when George W. Bush was invading Iraq to liberate it and let 1,000 Arab flowers bloom. And anyone who was opposed was not properly humanitarian or worse, a racist who did not believe in Arab democracy. Which is, after all, God's gift to humanity through his chosen people, the United States of America.
Now, of course, all goodthinkers take Bibi Netanyahu’s line that Arabs are not yet ready for democracy. To paraphrase John McCain, we are all sclerotic Middle East autocrats now.
(As regards Iran, it is interesting to note that when Ahmadinejad steals one election, it’s out he should go for the DC crowd, but when Hosni Mubarak steals half-a-dozen, well, he should in good faith reform how he does business, and hold a freer election.)
I can’t speak for how the Republicans and conservatives misunderstand the world, but Gelb spoke at length about the Iranian revolution. And Gelb is about as good a spokesman for the establishment position, the view of the American elite, as we are going to get. It's clear from what he says that he completely misunderstands the Iranian Revolution. I’m guessing just about everyone who matters in Washington misunderstands it too.
For Gelb, the Iranian Revolution of 1978 was a mass popular uprising that was hijacked by Khomeini and his merry band of clerics. That’s why, for Gelb, even if the protestors are themselves not Islamists, the very fact they could be unwittingly used by banned Muslim Brotherhood means they should repressed. This was a view I first heard articulated by communists and socialists in the San Francisco Bay Area who had close associations with the Tudeh (Iran’s communist party) and the Mujahedin e Khalq (which in the late 1980s had supporters in Berkeley, including the owner of a Middle Eastern grocery store I frequently shopped at). Iran’s uprising was generally a secular affair (or communist one, if the leftists were to be believed) that was usurped by the clerics, who then imposed religion on the revolution. (I am told by a friend this is more or less what we were taught at Georgetown, too. Why don't I remember that?)
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Iranian Revolution was, from start to finish, a religious endeavor. Khomeini had been theorizing and writing about what Shia government should look like in the absence of the 12th Imam since the mid-1940s. By the early 1960s, he was the last Shia cleric effectively standing against Mohammed Reza Shah. That Khomeini began his religious career as a Sufi, far outside the Shia establishment, helped. (He was never really taken seriously by Iran's Shia establishment until it was too late.) But he was steadfastly unwilling to be co-opted by the imperial Iranian state or its patron, Washington — something many clerics were susceptible to. For that, Khomeini was exiled, first to Turkey, then Iraq, and then after Iraq expelled him (as part of the 1975 agreement finalizing the border between Iran and Iraq) to France. It is in France where Khomeini, and a number of followers and fellow travelers, orchestrated the revolution in Iran. Primarily by cassette tape. Once the police started killing protestors, the Shia cycle of mourning ensured that protests could be kept up on a daily basis. Whatever promises Khomeini made at the time (to retire to a seminary, to have democracy), it was clear he and he alone was the single true leader of the revolution and his 30-year-vision of an Islamic state would prevail. Anyone else who participated was either used or went along for the ride. Not the other way around.
The silence of the Sunni Islamist revolutionaries to events in Tunisia and Egypt, however, has been deafening. (Iran's government has been self-serving, but what else is to be expected?) But more to the point, there is no equivalent of Khomeini sitting underneath a tree in Paris directing events in Tunis or Cairo. (We would know, because people would be flocking to that person, or those people, as would reporters.) Revolutionary Islam has not been a potent force of protest in the Sunni world for the last 15 years or so. Had the Islamists of Egypt been able to mobilize a mass of people, they would have done so in October, 1981, when they killed Anwar Sadat, and toppled the government then. It didn’t happen, and it won’t happen now. The Islamists quickly resorted to terror, and the Egyptian government responded in kind. But as brutal as the Egyptian government was, the violence of the state had a moral legitimacy against the violence of the Islamists. Egyptians never wanted an Islamic state, not in the way Iranians aspired to some kind (though maybe not Khomeini’s kind) of Islamic state in 1978.
None of the forces in play in 1978 are in play here. Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Thawahiri are in no position to direct a revolution, wherever they may be (Northwest Frontier Province? Karachi? Dubai?). And there isn’t anyone who would listen to them anyway. The Brotherhood may be involved on some level, but I rather doubt it – Islamists wear their identities on their sleeves, they do not hide them. These protests are the protests of middle-class and lower-middle class young and educated people, the Egyptians most likely to believe the promises of secular democracy — of the Enlightenment — and then demand them.
Instead, we have an America with an un-adulterated Cold War outlook – fully support the friendly dictator (but don’t call him one; friends are never dictators) and push the dictator to reform his political system. I can think of some places where it worked – South Korea, Taiwan, maybe Chile – but I can also think of a whole bunch of places where it didn’t or isn’t – South Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan.
And the American elite have apparently decided that stakes are far higher now than they ever were during the Cold War. Losing a state in the Cold War meant only that it went over to the Soviet side. A terrible fate, as far as they were concerned, but not really the end of the world. But the existential fear about terrorism has made it imperative, from Washington's point of view, that Islamists be prevented by any means necessary from getting anywhere close to power. I have no doubt that the president of the United States (and this includes Barack Hussein Obama) would sanction genocide in a place like Egypt or Pakistan if it was believed to be necessary to ensure the survival of a state friendly to Washington and prevent even the possibility that Islamists would even breath state air. (After all, isn't this what happened in Al-Anbar province is Iraq in 2004 and 2005?)
Washington may mean what it says about Mubarak and reform, but at the end of the day, the Egyptian state has Washington over a barrel — Hosni can tell Hillary Clinton or President Obama as they sanctimoniously call for reform, "It's either me or the deep blue sea. Which do you choose?"
That choice will be clear. Because Washington is happy to be over that barrel. Washington's pronouncements in public on this matter, then, have little meaning. I suspect the Obama regime is saying something much different in private to Mubarak and his cronies, but I have absolutely no proof of that.
So the likely outcome of events in Egypt this week is that Mubarak will continue to hold on to power. He may even strengthen his grip, as Egypt's elites and governing institutions know from the example of Tunisia that merely sending the president and his family packing will not completely placate the protestors. Hang together, or hang one-by-one. (Whether his son succeeds is another matter entirely.) That said, if the Army has to choose between preserving itself and Mubarak's rule (if that ever becomes the choice), it will save itself.
But Washington has bought itself no friends. Not real ones. There are always friends to be had for cash. There may come a day — more than likely it will come sooner or later — when dictators like Mubarak (oh, sorry u2018bout that Mr. Biden, non-dictators like Mubarak) will not be able to rely on American power or American money. At some point, this regime in Egypt will pay for this (just as Iran's will pay for what happened last summer). And protestors next time will know that America does not mean what it says about democracy. That they are on their own. If America isn't going to be on your side even when you aren't anti-American, you might as well be anti-American in all the right ways, right? If the Islamists are smart, this failed revolt could work to their long-term advantage. We have been lucky so far that they have been a lot more violent than smart.
But that day, if and when it comes, is going to be a very interesting day.