Is Egypt on a path to become another Iran? The anti-government protests in Cairo, aimed at bringing down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, seem to be working. Mubarak has announced that he will not run for re-election in September. Will this be enough to quell the uprising and restore calm to the capital city? Maybe or maybe not! Mubarak took over the country in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, who had signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1978. Egypt, the largest country in the Middle East, has been an ally of the United States in the region since the signing of the peace agreement. The Sadat agreement was significant because in the early 70’s, Sadat switched from a political affiliation with the Soviets to a partnership with Washington that helped bolster the US standing across the Arab region. It was thirteen years later when Jordan signed the only other Middle East peace agreement with Israel. In fact, Egyptian intelligence, after the 9/11 attack, was critical in helping the US in the fight against al-Qaeda. So, even though Mubarak’s government was oppressive, the relationship with the US was an important factor behind the $1.5 billion in foreign aid for Egypt this year. Over the past 30 years, Egypt has received more than $600 Billion in aid to become, in the words of Robert Gibbs (WH Press Secretary), “a source of stability in the Middle East.”
So, what is next for Egypt? Since Mubarak is not running, the current most likely candidate is Mohamed ElBaradei, a 2005 Nobel Peace prize winner, and current director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He has become a prominent face of the opposition and told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the US should openly abandon any and all support for Mubarak. ElBaradei seems to be forging an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful influence in Egypt, to gauge his prospects for running for president in the fall. The Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1928 and has members throughout the Middle East. Though not recognized as a legitimate party by Mubarak, the Brotherhood won 20% of seat is the Egypt parliament in 2005. They clearly are a factor to be dealt with in the future of Egyptian politics.
ElBaradei has repeatedly used the phrase “social justice” when interviewed regarding the oppressive regime of Mubarak. Social justice in the context of freedom of the people to govern themselves is a noble concept. Without doubt, the dictatorship of Mubarak has deprived the people of Egypt opportunities for self-government. But, social justice in the context that the government runs and controls the lives of the people is no better than socialism. Should the new government move toward a purely secular government, social justice may be replaced by sharia law which may severely limit the rights of women in Egypt. It is also interesting that ElBaradei embraced the Friday Protests as a “Day of Rage.” Not exactly a call for peaceful demonstration!
Another question is whether or not these protests are a sign that the youth of Arab countries is ready to challenge the beliefs of their elders. Are those in the streets rallying against poverty and unemployment; or are they protesting the lack of freedom within Egypt. Do they want democracy or just a change to a different oppressive regime? The demonstrations in Iran last year were clearly frustrations over the manner in which the country is being run. The riots changed little, but they signaled growing distrust with Ahmadinejad, particularly among the young people of Iran.
The Israelis are already sounding the alarm with the imminent demise of Mubarak. They fear that the Mubarak regime will be replaced with a more militant government similar to other Middle East countries that are pledged to the destruction of the state of Israel. If, and it is a big if, Egypt should eventually go the route of Iran, then Israel (and the US) would be isolated in the region. Based on what has happened in Iran, Israel has good reason for concern since the US has supplied most of the weapons that the new government will control and could be used against the Israelis.
The balance of the world has reason to be concerned as well. Disruption of the flow of oil to other countries around the world could cause economic hardship. With the price of Brent Crude already over $100 per barrel, any interruption of the flow of oil would push oil prices even higher and translate to higher prices and supply issues. Imagine the price of gasoline at $5 or more and one can easily see how that would drastically affect the American consumer. Undoubtedly, the US stock market would be adversely impacted and consumers would have to redirect their family budgets to accommodate the higher cost of living. Higher transportation costs would affect the airlines and soft commodity prices (corn, wheat, soybeans, etc.) significantly.
The Obama administration has waffled on its position depending on the perceived outcome. Biden stated that Mubarak was not a “dictator” and submitted that Mubarak should not step down and downplayed the demonstrations in the streets as being related to Mubarak. He called the protestors “middle class folks looking for a little more access and a little more opportunity.” Hillary Clinton wants to “monitor the situation very closely.” She hopes the protestors “refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully.” President Obama has sat on the fence, testing the way the wind blows…..which is not a bad strategy considering the fluid nature of the situation. Let’s pray that our diplomats are working with Mubarak and ElBaradei to ensure that American interests are protected.
Egypt is but one hot spot in the Middle East. Riots in Tunisia, Sudan, and Yemen seek to topple regimes as well. The people protest against high unemployment, poverty, corruption, and social injustice. Are the dominos falling? And what will be the outcome? Iran was “an island of stability” in a troubled Middle East according to President Jimmy Carter when he toasted the Shah at a state dinner in Tehran in 1977. Carter later created his Office of Human Rights and sent a letter to the Shah reminding him of the importance of political rights and freedom. As a result, the Shah released 350 Islamic fundamentalist prisoners who later helped lead the Islamic Revolution and the Iran Hostage crisis. The Shah ran a government which had excellent relations with the United States. With the revolution coming fast, the Shah asked the US for guidance. A Carter advisor suggested that the Shah should “brutally suppress the revolution” while the State Department wanted to reach out to the Revolutionaries to smooth the way to a new government. Carter did neither……..and the rest is history.
The Egyptian unrest will be a defining moment for Obama. He will be labeled the President who lost Egypt if radical fundamentalists take over the country. Let’s hope that Obama does not repeat the indecisiveness and incompetence of the Carter administration.
2/3/11 Update…. The Muslim Brotherhood has announced that if they come into power in Egypt, the Egypt-Israel Peace agreement will be scraped. Not an encouraging sign for Israel and the rest of the world.