Anastasio Somoza was a bulwark against Nazi influence in Central America. Ferdinand Marcos was a reformer and nation builder. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar emerged in Portugal as a symbol of integrity and stability. Jimmy Carter said that “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability.” The United States tilted toward Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.
As all the world is discovering, Hosni Mubarak’s name fits comfortably in this chronicle.
Mubarak came to power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He has pleased five American presidents and a generation of congressional leaders by providing Israel stable and quiet borders, was one of the largest beneficiaries of American economic and military support, and established himself as one of the mainstays of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Looking the other way
The repressive nature of Mubarak’s rule has been well-known to American diplomats, who in some cases encouraged the Egyptian leader’s resolve against Islamist influences, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. For most of the last three decades, Americans have looked the other way or pretended not to see that Egypt had elections but was not a democracy, professed openness but did not cultivate it, and supported economic mobility but did not foster it.
This winter everything changed, and the American diplomats who for so long accommodated Mubarak sought to distance the United States from him. This is a familiar galliard, the orchestrated leap away from a strongman whose utility to the United States is spent, whose popularity in his own country is dissipated, whose pinions of support are crumbling and whose days are numbered.
Mubarak may have been “our S.O.B.,” in the phrase that Franklin Roosevelt used to describe Rafael Trujillo, the jefe of the Dominican Republic, but the United States spent last week seeking to dissolve its ties to him ASAP.
Hard to let go
This month’s Mubarak crisis underlines an unfortunate aspect of American foreign policy — the difficulty of letting go, often from a once-promising figure whose interests coincided with American interests but whose inclinations veered from American values.
Once they were useful. Often they were odious. Then changes on the ground, or more precisely on the streets, changed the political calculus.
“The people decide,” says Stephen W. Bosworth, who as American ambassador to the Philippines helped ease Marcos from power in 1986. “They set the context and then we decide what to do. In the end, our relationship with a country, and our interests in that country, outweigh the relationship with a person.”
Bosworth, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, adds: “Knowing when to cut loose is as important as anything else.”
Breaking up is hard to do. The United States had long relationships with some of the most obdurate tyrants of the 20th century, who helped contain communism, or advance American economic interests, or provide American air and naval bases in critical regions.
Many of these figures had a stubborn desire to hang on, often to enrich themselves, sometimes to enjoy the prerogatives of power, almost always because of the (legitimate) fear that the moment they left the palace they would be killed. The common thread: They hoped to die of natural causes, and to do that they needed to remain in office.
Mubarak’s pledge to leave the presidency after September’s elections was a variation on the theme, as he decided not to run for re-election after President Barack Obama pressed him in a difficult 30-minute telephone call last Tuesday. But Obama’s meaning was unmistakable: The United States was withdrawing support from one of its most loyal allies.
“Up until last week there wasn’t this degree of popular mobilization against Mubarak,” says Wendy Pearlman, a Northwestern University specialist in comparative Middle East politics. “There was repression, there was corruption, there was rule that was not democratic, but U.S. policy was resigned to it and many Egyptians were resigned to it.”
U.S. forced to re-evaluate
Tunisia and its Jasmine Revolution broke the barrier of fear and made Egyptians believe that if they, too, took to the streets they might bring down their ruling regime. “Mubarak was an American ally, but suddenly the Egyptian people spoke very loudly and unmistakably,” Pearlman says. “It forced the United States to re-evaluate.”
More important, this Egyptian moment casts that country of 80 million on a new path in the modern history of an ancient nation that began with British rule and led to the Free Officers Movement of Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser and now to destinations unknown.
In his history of the Muslim Brotherhood, Richard P. Mitchell tells of how six workers came to Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the group, eight decades ago. “We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction,” the workers said. “Lo, we see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and no dignity. They are not more than mere hirelings, belonging to the foreigners. We possess nothing but this blood ... and these souls ... and these few coins.”
Today the protesters are members of the new Middle Eastern middle class, but still largely without freedom and often without prospects, particularly the young, who make up the largest and most educated generation in Arab history. They have joined comrades who once conducted their own days of rage on the streets of Manila and Tehran, and they have done more than force the United States to re-evaluate its alliances. They have forged a future for themselves.
The challenge for the United States is to adapt to that new future.
“You try to hold to a few basic principles,” says Bosworth. “One is that people are mortal but relationships between countries endure. Another is that national interests endure. We as a country have a strong national interest in having a decent working relationship with Egypt, a pivotal country in the Arab world. Our interests are not going to diminish just because there has been a revolt against Mubarak.”
Everything has changed inside Egypt — but the task for American diplomats is to assure that little changes in the relationship between the two countries. Suddenly the Obama administration has one more test and trial.