COMMENT: US policy in Egypt: potential and pitfalls —Dr Mohammad Taqi - Thursday, February 10, 2011

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Whenever there is any political turbulence in the world, especially in Muslim countries, planners in the US become jumpy and draw parallels to Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power. They simply do not wish to be caught off guard again

Revolutions, historically, have remained a geostrategic forecaster’s nightmare. For starters, revolutions are difficult to define and identify. What may appear, prima facie, to be a revolution in the making, may stop short of achieving any significant change. Unless a popular socio-political movement results in fundamental transformations in a society’s state and class structures and relationships, it may not qualify as a revolution.

The rewards of accurately anticipating major societal transformations or upheavals and interpreting them as they unravel can be monumental for individuals and nations directly or indirectly affected by such a change. But also, a wrong reading of the wave of the future can come at tremendous geopolitical cost. In the US, for example, a debate has simmered for decades on whether the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran could have been predicted and, therefore, pre-empted or at least mitigated.

Whenever there is any political turbulence in the world, especially in Muslim countries, planners in the US become jumpy and draw parallels to Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power. They simply do not wish to be caught off guard again. But, for all their lamenting, no US foreign policy analyst or forecaster, from Zbigniew Brzezinski to George Friedman has been able to predict any of the major post-1979 revolutions. Whether it was the implosion of the Soviet Union or the Lebanese Cedar Revolution, the multi-billion dollar policy planning industry has failed to issue even a reasonable warning. Of course, these two events, unlike Iran, turned out to be complementary to the US and western geopolitical goals and, subsequently, business remained as usual.

However, the first full-scale geopolitical tectonic shift in the Middle East since the Iranian revolution has again left the US completely stunned. US analysts and planners in the government, think tanks and academia were bewildered at the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. When asked by the host of a comedy show, Jon Stewart, if anyone saw it coming, Admiral Mike Mullen’s response was sombre: “It has taken not just us but many people by surprise.”

Even though the events in Egypt over the past two weeks have remained distinctly neutral towards the US, the latter’s paranoia of an anti-American dispensation emerging in the largest Arab country has kept the Obama administration waffling about, instead of coming out decisively in favour of the pro-democracy forces in Egypt. At a time when he had the opportunity to make a clean break from decades of the US’s patronage given to tin-pot dictators, Barack Obama appears to be riding the fence.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s gaffe at the outset of the Tahrir uprising that “our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people” was perhaps reflective of the ethos of the US establishment. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, planners in the US retain a favourable view of dictatorial regimes, as long as they do their bidding. Clinton went on to choose former US envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner to deliver the ‘tough message’ to Hosni Mubarak. In selecting Wisner, she — and Barack Obama — forgot that he actually works for the law firm Patton Boggs, whose clients include Egypt’s oligarchs and crony capitalists — the very groups against which the Egyptians are revolting.

Wisner’s foot-in-the-mouth remark that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it is his opportunity to write his own legacy,” was hardly a surprise. The Obama administration may say whatever it wants but this is precisely the mindset that had contributed to the Reagan doctrine of “supporting the ‘mildly’ repressive regimes around the world, as long as they were anti-communist”. Replace the Muslim Brotherhood for communists in the Reagan doctrine and you have the crux of the US policy that continues to support the apparatchiks like Omar Suleiman who have the blood of at least 300 people, killed since January 25th, on their hands.

Revolutions may be hard to predict but a reasonably objective interpretation of the events as they unfold, can help reposition the US favourably in a rapidly changing Middle East. US analysts failed to see the change in Egypt not because they were incompetent but because they are so used to looking at the Arab world through the Israeli lens. Now, in interpreting the change that is underway, they are committing the same blunder and have left objectivity by the wayside.

By Israel’s own estimates, even a completely hostile regime in Egypt would take more than a generation to become sufficiently powerful to be any significant threat to the Jewish state. And even then the Egyptian Army would never be an existential danger to Israel. Similarly, Israelis estimate that Syria does not portend any significant danger to their territorial integrity. The domestic terrorism situation in Israel can worsen if the milieu in the adjoining Arab states becomes conducive to it, but again that does not mean any mortal danger for Israel. The US’s misreading of its own and Israeli interests being under threat from a democratic dispensation in Egypt could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Secular activists and the Muslim Brothers thus far have shown remarkable maturity in steering the movement towards its logical goal, i.e. regime change in Egypt. While the dissolution of the dictator’s rubber-stamp parliament and abrogating his constitution will be the instruments defining the new political contract, the resignation of Hosni Mubarak will be symbolic of this change. The Egyptian people know that these are the bare minimum steps for their struggle to qualify as a revolution. They, therefore, have astutely, resolutely and politely declined to listen to the voices in Washington.

We have lived through two weeks that shook the Arab world. Since Gamal Nasser’s revolution, the Arabs have been in search of a template for a new social contract. The new model for the Arabs is not Turkey or Iran, as the change in Egypt is already reverberating across at least five Arab capitals. By casting in its lot with the oligarchs and apparatchiks of Egypt, the US runs the risk of being shut out of the new Middle East.

Frank Wisner and his ilk are dead wrong, as the only opportunity Hosni Mubarak has is to write his own political obituary. On the other hand, history has afforded Barack Obama a chance to write his legacy — at least as far as the Arab world is concerned. He must avoid being on the wrong side of history.

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