ANALYSIS: Egyptian unrest: dynasty, devolution or revolution? —Harlan Ullman - Thursday, February 03, 2011

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The US’s record in affecting potentially revolutionary events, since winning its own, has generally been poor. During the Cold War, the US supported autocratic anti-communist leaders, not democrats

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 localised 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 a devolution of power in some meaningful form, including Mubarak’s resignation, or to a real Egyptian revolution? And will greater ‘democratisation’ 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 Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”.

Before drawing grand conclusions about what this unrest may mean, context is important. First, suppose Hosni 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 US 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 be hijacked by well-organised radicals. But how much influence can the US exert and what is its track record in fashioning outcomes favourable to its interests and policies in similar circumstances of pubic 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 has not undergone either a Martin Luther reformation or a renaissance. Will these differences count in the 21st century?

Regarding the economic and political forces that have precipitated this wave of Egyptian protests, it is not 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 Gulf states have the resources. Yet, revolutionary-democratic change given the spectre of radical Islam is a potential nightmare.

The US’s record in affecting potentially revolutionary events, since winning its own, has generally been poor. During the Cold War, the US 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 is not 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 so far in Egyptian protests — remarkable because Egypt has been the fount for much of Islamic radicalism and for personalities who have advanced and are advancing the 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 will not work. And President 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 US has no good options in Egypt. The one fragile tool the US 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.

The US’s political debate over what to or not to do is not relevant because we lack the tools to alter outcomes and do not have 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 US must keep its own counsel. Domestic reaction from left and right will be intense and it was domestic politics that no doubt persuaded President Obama to inform the public on nationwide television of his conversation with Mubarak minutes before.

Maybe it is 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.

The writer is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council

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