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The revolution in Egypt that has successfully ended President Hosni Mubarak’s plan to seek another term and may soon drive him from power puts that pivotal nation on a hazardous but potentially promising path. For millions of Egyptians who have never known another leader in their lives and feared that the 21st century seemed to have passed them by, the only question may be why this change took so long.
Ten years ago, I traveled to Egypt for my first meeting with Mubarak as part of a Congressional delegation. At the end of a productive discussion of the peace process, we raised the issue of Saad Ibrahim, the Egyptian democracy advocate who was then in prison. At the mere mention of Ibrahim’s name, the tenor of the meeting changed completely. Mubarak made it abundantly clear that while he was more than willing to discuss international issues, what he did in his own country was none of our business.
The jailing of Ibrahim would later be followed by the jailing of another secular opponent of Mubarak’s, Ayman Nour, and was part of an effort to delegitimize opposition to the regime. This allowed Mubarak to cast the struggle as one between his government and the only other organized party in the country — the Muslim Brotherhood. It also meant that the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people for an end to the corruption, brutality and stagnation would have no outlet. That his reign would end badly should be no more surprising than it was for the leaders of the Communist bloc or Tunisia’s Ben Ali.
The question now confronting policymakers is what will follow Mubarak, and how will the changes affect American interests in a troubled region that is vital to our national security? Some commentators have expressed fear that Egypt will be taken over by the Muslim Brothers and become an Iranian-style theocracy on Israel’s border with control of the Suez Canal, but this is unlikely. The great mass of Egyptians is fed up with Mubarak not for reasons of religion, but because he and his government are corrupt and brutal.
Like Tunisia, this is a revolt of the middle class. Educated Egyptians with Facebook and Twitter accounts are driving this, not the Muslim Brotherhood, which did not become involved until the protests were well under way. While thanks to Mubarak’s suppression of a secular opposition the Muslim Brothers are almost certainly Egypt’s largest single political grouping, Egyptian society is politically diverse with many millions wanting real democracy and a shot at a better life without having to endure the rigid lifestyle of an Islamist republic.
It is much more probable that Egypt would come to resemble modern Turkey, with a functioning democracy embedded in a secular state balanced by a strong military. Although the Turkish military has intervened in the past to overthrow governments, it has remained on the sidelines in recent years, even as it has enunciated “red lines” regarding the secular nature of the state. In fact, Turkey has been governed by the Islamist AK Party since 2002, and the interplay between the government and the military could presage civil-military relations in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Diplomatically, the AK Party has represented a challenge for the United States, as would any Egyptian coalition government. It refused to allow American troops to enter Iraq through Turkish territory in 2003, launched the so-called Gaza flotilla, tried to scuttle sanctions against Iran and has never come to grips with the Armenian genocide. Undoubtedly, a popularly elected Egyptian government would present a far more complicated and at times less reliable partner in the peace process than the Mubarak regime. But the Egyptian military, like its Turkish counterpart, can be expected to prevent any radical Islamist takeover and press for the continuation of the peace treaty with Israel and the close ties it has with U.S. armed forces.
At the other end of the possible spectrum of Egyptian development lies not Iran, but Pakistan. Like Turkey, its military is the strongest institution in the country, but the central government is weak and corruption is endemic at all levels. Most problematic, the weakness of the Pakistani state, as well as the lack of trust between American and Pakistani officials, has been a catalyst for Pakistan’s dual role as a crucial ally in the war in Afghanistan, even as it supports the Taliban and other jihadis there.
Our capacity to influence events in Egypt in the near term is limited, and the Egyptian people will decide their nation’s fate. We should not shy away from supporting the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people for fear of what the country may become, rather we should devote ourselves to the success of that democracy and ensure that Egypt does not replace one autocracy with another, theocratic or otherwise. Congress and the president must stand ready to help Egypt as it begins a new chapter in its 5,000 year history.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) serves on the Intelligence Committee, as well as the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.