Egypt needs leadership but it isn’t lost

February 9, 2011


There’s the tendency in some quarters to sow panic about what will happen in Egypt if Hosni Mubarak steps down.

Last week Glenn Beck stood in front of a chart that portrayed a broad green swath of radical Islamist states extending from Egypt across the entire Middle East to India. (Never mind that India is overwhelmingly Hindu.)

I’m getting e-mail from GOPUSA denouncing “Barrack Carter” as if President Obama had “lost” Egypt the way Jimmy Carter “lost” Iran.

To which I say, “Get a grip!” Egypt is not lost, nor is it Iran. Let’s have a reality check.

First the Iran analogies. Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim state, where Shiite clerics always played an activist role. The charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from Paris in 1979 and rallied millions of Iranians, which enabled the clerics to hijack the revolution.

Egypt, in contrast, is a Sunni Muslim country where most clerics traditionally support the state.

Yes, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized opposition force (although banned as a political party, its members have run in parliamentary elections). The Brotherhood forsook violence years ago under state pressure, but it does have a worrisome past; it also supports Hamas and opposes the peace treaty with Israel. But it is riven with internal divisions, and has no charismatic leader. Experts say its appeal does not extend beyond 20 percent to 30 percent of the public.

In the past, the Mubarak regime crushed non-Islamist parties so it could use the Brotherhood as a bogeyman and an excuse for strongman rule. If other parties are allowed to flourish in a more open system, the Islamists would remain a minority force.

Moreover, Egypt’s army — which will remain the bulwark of the state — won’t permit the Brotherhood’s role to expand.

And for anyone who has been glued to the TV coverage of the rebels in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the nonreligious nature of the demonstrations was stunning. I was struck by what one Egyptian friend told me emotionally by phone: “These were the first demonstrations I’ve seen in my lifetime where people are not shouting against something, like America or Israel. They were not anti-anybody. They were just asking for justice and a better life.”

“But,” my friend went on, “in the past the demonstrators had leaders, and now it is just the people asking for democracy.”

This then is a genuine reason for worry about Egypt’s future: When and from what circles will its next leaders emerge?

The massive crowds in Tahrir Square — which have kept coming despite last week’s violence — have produced no prominent spokesmen. In a situation where the opposition is weak and fragmented, better-organized Islamists could win a plurality in parliament.

There is some nascent political organization behind the demonstrations. The youthful organizers of the protests who worked via Facebook prefer to stay in the background. But a spectrum of opposition figures from a broad range of small parties, plus the Muslim Brotherhood, set up a 100-man shadow parliament after rigged parliamentary elections in November. The Brotherhood was permitted only 15 percent of the seats.

That group, in turn, appointed a steering committee of 10, including the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who might emerge as a temporary leader. These men could be part of the process leading to free elections next fall. But ElBaradei does not appear to have the appeal of a presidential candidate.

The Obama administration has been working behind the scenes to encourage a transitional government that would draw in members of the opposition. Such a government would function until elections in September and give time for new opposition parties to organize — and new leaders to appear.

The shape of the transition remains murky as Mubarak ponders his future. But one thing is clear: The Egyptian army would play a major stabilizing role, with public approval.

Proposals on how to manage the transition, from various opposition groups, are zipping around the Internet; I’ve been receiving translations from Cairo. They include names of distinguished Egyptians who might take part in a transition team; most are secular intellectuals and technocrats, such as Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ahmed Zewail and Dr. Gawdat el-Malt, president of the Central Auditing Organization, as well as politicians like Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League.

These proposals remind us that there are many talented Egyptians who, given the chance, could emerge into leadership roles.

So when people talk about Egypt being “lost,” I respond that Egyptians are just finding themselves. Theirs is a talented population that had given up on the future of its country. Shahira Amin, a noted presenter on state-owned Nile TV, who quit last week when the channel refused to show state-sponsored violence, put it well: “I thought Egypt was a mountain that could not be moved. These young people did what my generation couldn’t do.”

A new Egyptian government may be fragmented; its leadership may be weak. It may not be as responsive to U.S. interests as an autocrat would be. But the army — which has strong U.S. ties — is hardly likely to break the peace treaty with Israel.

This revolution is “made in Egypt,” it’s not Islamist, and the United States can’t stop it. The wisest U.S. course, which the Obama team is now pursuing, is to help Egyptians organize an orderly transition and build up their political system — into something better than the region has seen.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Paul R Getto 7 years, 2 months ago

I agree. The Egyptian president is thuggish, partially because we encourage it for our benefit. This is most likely not another Iran, however. The young and unemployed in Egypt are driving much of the revolt and they do not appear to be medieval like some others in this area. We have a chance here if we handle it right and get lucky.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

If we hadn't invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein would be facing a similar fate, and the US wouldn't have flushed $trillions down the toilet or needlessly cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, including over 4000 US military personnel, and maimed countless thousands more. And the infrastructure of Iraq wouldn't have been pushed back 70 years.

Same thing in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan would have done their own dirty work of holding the Taliban accountable for tolerating/hosting Al Qaeda, allowing the US to tend to its own affairs, and spend the trillions flushed down the toilet to address the many needs we have right here.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 2 months ago

Bozo: You are right but you forget, dumping trillions down the Middle East's ratholes is good for 'biddness,' particularly the Military Industrial Complex. Just wish they would budget enough money to deal with the wrecked soldiers coming home from the BS wars.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

I understand that the US has given Egypt over $70bn in military and economic aid over the last several decades. And it's probably no coincidence that Mubarak and his family are believed to have amassed a fortune estimated at over $50bn.

I doubt that any of that will ever be returned to either US taxpayers or the people of Egypt.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 2 months ago

One fringe benefit of being "our guy" is stealing US tax dollars. One of our other thugs in Afghanistan and hig buddies just stole nearly a billion from the central bank, telling US officials, "You figure out how to pay the army. The money is gone."

Flap Doodle 7 years, 2 months ago

In other Egyptian news: "LONDON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah told U.S. President Barack Obama that his country would prop up Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak if the United States withdrew its aid programme, The Times said on Thursday.

Abdullah told Obama not to humiliate Mubarak, who is under pressure from protesters to quit immediately, in a telephone call on January 29, the newspaper said, citing a senior source in Riyadh...."


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

What else would you expect from the business partners of the Bush crime family?

ralphralph 7 years, 2 months ago

Much hand-wringing by the Obama team. It's hard not to have rekindled memories of the failure that was Carter's policy.

"I regret that I have but one Panama Canal to give away for my country." - James Earl Carter.

Brent Garner 7 years, 2 months ago

I certainly hope Ms. Rubin and her ilk are correct. However, from my own research I think she paints the Muslim Brotherhood as entirely too benign. Further, I suspect their influence in Egypt is far greater than Ms. Rubin, et al, would either suspect or admit. Note, it was not until the Muslim Brotherhood joined in that the demonstrations swelled like they did. Previously the demonstrations were much smaller and less worrisome, but after 2 days of "student" demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to get involved and issued orders to their followers to join in. The demonstrations then swelled to 100s of thousands instead of 10s of thousands. If this report is true, then it demonstrates that the Muslim Brotherhood has far greater influence than they have been given credit for and pose a far greater threat than thought.

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