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Posted at 12:01 PM ET, 02/ 6/2011

Democracy in Egypt

By Jennifer Rubin

There seems to be cause for optimism that Hosni Mubarak might be pushed aside in favor of a transitional government. The Post reported Saturday:

A group of about 30 Egyptian intellectuals, writers, business leaders and legal experts has met with Vice President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq in recent days. Members of the group have demanded that Mubarak turn over his authority to Suleiman, who would use it to manage a transition to democracy while Mubarak remains as a figurehead president until new elections.

"It's basically a face-saving solution," said Amr Hamzawy, research director for the Carnegie Middle East Center and one of the participants. Suleiman and Shafiq have been receptive, he said, and there have been "encouraging signs" from Mubarak.

As many of us noted, Egypt is not China, and the moment of greatest peril for a Tiananmen-type slaughter -- Friday -- seems to have passed.

It is worth noting that conservatives in the United States have not been of one mind. Part of this is institutional and part is philosophical.

It is understandable, for example, that in moments of high international tension Republican members of Congress choose largely to defer to the White House. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are exceptions to the rule, ever ready to chide, cajole and rebuke the administration for its missteps. But most Republican members of Congress are slow to speak out on foreign policy issues, especially in a case where the outcome is far from certain. By contrast, a number of potential 2012 Republican candidates (e.g. Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee) have been more vocal and critical of the president. That's not surprising for those who want to replace him.

But there is also a philosophical divide. On one hand you have those proponents in favor of what has become known as the Bush freedom agenda. They see repressive regimes as inherently unstable. As I have argued here at Right Turn, America for both ideological and practical reasons must be on the side of democracy, human rights and those willing to throw off the shackles of oppression, be they in Iran, Egypt or Tunisia.

But even those on the right who are in favor of a forward-leaning foreign policy are wary of a post-Mubarak world. He's the devil we know, and the prospect of a government, if not controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, then influenced by it, is enough to justify, in their minds, sticking with the aging despot.

The latter group of conservatives, I would argue, has it wrong. Mubarak is going one way or the other, and unless we attempt to influence the direction and speed of the transition, we and Egypt could well end up with the worst of all words (e.g. another oppressive totalitarian, an Islamic state).

Reuel Marc Gerecht's must-read piece in the Weekly Standard observes that Mubarak's days are numbered, his reign unsustainable:

Hosni Mubarak and the other presidents-for-life, kings, and emirs of the Middle East have the bad luck to rule when the democratic wave has finally arrived. They have the bad luck to rule in an age when even Islamists are wrestling with the challenge and seductiveness of representative government.

And while we should not deceive ourselves about the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, neither should we pretend that Mubarak can maintain his grip or control the forces, secular and otherwise, that have now reached a boiling point. So the best we can do, Gerecht argues, is to help Egypt migrate into an era of "real intellectual competition--the starting point for healthy evolution.." He explains that democratic system with a parliament (providing "the decisive forum for great ethical debates"), rather than a decrepit regime is the best way to contain the Muslim Brotherhood:

The Brotherhood will have to survive constant competition from Egypt's liberals and secular nationalists, who have an older history in the country than the Islamists. They will have to survive the competition of devout Muslims who bristle at the Brotherhood's heavy-handedness. We should not assume that devout Muslims will be less subject to faction than their secular brethren. It's possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could pull off a military coup, but it seems unlikely. Their paramilitary forces are pathetic compared with the Egyptian Army, which has so far not shown itself, even in the lower ranks, to be blindly enamored of the Brotherhood. The organization would likely confront an enormous social, and quite possibly a military, backlash if it attempted to abort free elections once they got going.

Democratizing Egypt could change the face of the Middle East. Political evolution could start. No doubt the American and Israeli embrace of Mubarak's detested dictatorship will carry a price, perhaps a stiff price, in a democratic Egypt. It is the cost of our having sought to build stability on an authoritarian illusion. But for Mubarak's regime, or a military successor, to hold on would be a catastrophe for the United States. All of the cancers of the region--especially Islamic militancy--would get worse.

And, as Gerecht notes, we are not without a "trump card" -- the threat of a cut off in military aid.

It is this sort of sober assessment -- Mubarak is going, let's shape what follows -- that has begun to affect the Israeli government's assessment. And it will and should affect conservatives in the U.S. Whether motivated by the belief in the right of all souls to aspire to freedom or the steely-eyed calculation that Mubarak's political demise is inevitable, we now have the opportunity to shape events. We did not depose Mubarak; a national uprising is doing that. So whatever may have been the desires of "realists" infatuated with the "stability" of a dictator, we are past that now. As in so many situations Winston Chruchill had it right: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." No, Egypt is not Britain, but is there a better option?

By Jennifer Rubin  | February 6, 2011; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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I can't agree more with Jennifer.

Democratizing Egypt could change the face of the Middle East. Political evolution could start

The attacks on protesters and journalists using a third force is what we want to see last.

Countries like Egypt, Sri Lanka,Sudan, Zimbabwe have shown us how these third forces are effective in crushing democracy. Egyptian protesters may lose the battle with this dictator. But, it is proud to be an Egyptian today.

Nicolae Ceausescu, Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Chun Doo-hwan, Suharto are all gangsters and friends until they became untenable.

A crucial moment in history to change the face of these dictators with a third force.

Posted by: sandyv | February 6, 2011 12:42 PM | Report abuse

"Shaping" the transition to a representative government and a dynamic, competitive polity. Well. (As George Will likes to say). Enfolding the MB within that polity and containing them in that way. Again, well (maybe even better). There were a number of people on the Tevee this week asserting that there is no problem with "Moderate Islamists" participating in government and extolled Turkey as an example. We all know how the competitive politics, the rule of law and freedom of the press have faired under the AKP. The best.

RMG has exceptional knowledge of these issues and approaches them with a great deal of insight and common sense. There is no question that a very large portion of the Egyptian population has been systematically, thoroughly and on occasion brutally denied there political rights and economic opportunity. Positioning ourselves to deny them such and siding fully (or even generally) with Mubarak was never an option. How well those rights will be vindicated and those opportunities created going forward remains something of a question mark.

BTW, Jen, I trust your enjoying the sun and sand in the Holy Land. Given the timing and nature of your trip you might have wanted to stop of at the Sicherkeit Konferenz in Munchen over the weekend. The nature of the thing necessarily signifies the presence of all sorts of miscreants. Still, I happened to be in Munich contemporaneously with the even a couple of years ago and a good time was had by all.

Posted by: cavalier4 | February 6, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Gerecht's argument is powerful and very welcome, but I think you misread his reference to our "trump card"--he is referring to its use in bringing Mubarak down, whereas you seem to be suggesting it would be of use in influencing the behavior of a successor regime. In other words, you are projecting your own optimism here, and this is an area Gerecht also glosses over. In general, he's right--Mubarak will go, one way or the other, his regime is decrepit and can't adapt, and almost any new regime will introduce competition, at least for awhile, among various factions--and, such competition is the basis of democracy. And, yes, no one is ready for democracy until they start practicing it. But how do we help them turn this competition into intellectual and political competition rather than civil war, and preventing one or another faction from suppressing the competition? There may not be much we can do here, other than just constantly publicizing the names, views and activities of as many public figures as possible. So, it's understandable if more attention gets paid to the question of how we prepare ourselves for the possibility, during the short or perhaps much longer term, that we could be faced with an extremely hostile regime. But, yes, hysteria about the (presumed) growing power of the MB should be moderated--they will not come seamlessly to power and proceed to implement the most egregious elements of their program--this will all be new to them as well.

Posted by: adam62 | February 6, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Good points, however, there are four (4) things you overlooked completely:

(1) Jobs (economics),

(2) Sexism (the disenfranchised Women of Egypt because of the culture of Islam),

(3) 8,000,000 Christians (the Copts of Egypt), and

4) the rest of the world (the USA isn't the only player in the fate of Egypt, even if it's the most important one).

After all, isn't the purpose of all governments, democratic, totalitarian, or even dictatorial like Nazis, to solve such problems?

It appears that you, Jennifer Rubin, disregard the cause of the upheaval in the first place: the young Arab who committed suicide by not killing anyone else but himself (a novel Jihadist phenomena) reacted to being deprived his means of livelihood by the police state. Why don't you, therefore, discuss as well how Egypt's forthcoming will be able to great jobs for the young educated unemployed, and improve the lot of those who only make $2 per day?

Posted by: Ludvikus | February 6, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Wishful thinking and expecting the best possible outcome is okay for children and irresponsible adults, it is not okay for serious diplomats and leaders, it is a recipe for disaster.
Mark Gerecht and Aaron Miller have lost all semblence of rational thought by their entirely baseless conjecture that a new and improved Egypt will emerge from the present crisis. Practically everything they suggest is based on their own fantasy and only incidentally on the reality of the Arab world. They believe, with no basis whatsoever, that a new and improved Muslim Brotherhood dominated Egyptian government will spend it's time improving the Egyptian economy, the educational system, and redistributing the Egyptian wealth, and of course worrying about the pittance that they recieve in foreign aid from America. Doesn't anyone even realize that the Muslim Brotherhood despises American foreign aid to any Islamic country, seeing it as a bribe by Infidels to further corrupt believing Moslems?
But according to Gerecht and Miller the new regime will be so concerned with Egypt that unlike every other Arab nation except Jordan, they will honor their peace committments to Israel, and not export their Jihadist Islamic fundamentalist revolution to other Arab states. Indeed, with so much as a shred of evidence, they even suggest that when the Muslim Brotherhood has to run Egypt, that this will somehow moderate them into warm and fuzzy democrats and guardians of human rights, and that they will concern themselves with improving the life of the poor, ignorant, and downtrodden Egyptians.
Well they just might, but given the reality of the Hamas in Gaza who kill, torture, and imprison any opposition and impose a radical Islam on everybody, I have to ask where and how Gerecht and Miller get these fantastic ideas.
No doubt we will find out soon enough, and I can only hope that we in Israel will be able to cope with that outcome, unlike Hillary Clinton who stated just this weekend that she frankly has no idea how the Egyptian situation will turn out and will just have to wait and see.
Some lousy excuse for a Secretary of State, some lousy excuse for American diplomacy.
God help all of us!

Posted by: kenhe | February 6, 2011 2:44 PM | Report abuse

"By contrast, a number of potential 2012 Republican candidates (e.g. Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee) have been more vocal and critical of the president. That's not surprising for those who want to replace him."

Actually they oppose YOU! Completely and utterly against YOUR position on this. I have ben watching them every night.

"We did not depose Mubarak; a national uprising is doing that."

Ummm actually Jennifer this goes against EVERYTHING you have written this past 10 days blaming Obama for the problem. Nice of you to finally come around to our position. It DOES point out that Jennifer Romney thing you've got going again though.

"The Brotherhood will have to survive constant competition from Egypt's liberals and secular nationalists, who have an older history in the country than the Islamists. They will have to survive the competition of devout Muslims who bristle at the Brotherhood's heavy-handedness. We should not assume that devout Muslims will be less subject to faction than their secular brethren."

Once again, because your experts are all American Jews, you miss the point that the "secular nationalists" are a small minority visible mainly in the American media, whereas by the accounts of all actually in Egypt, the MB is the largest and best organized opposition group.

" The organization would likely confront an enormous social, and quite possibly a military, backlash if it attempted to abort free elections once they got going."

Because after all one would only expect that the largest political party would HATE the idea of free elctions, right?

"Democratizing Egypt could change the face of the Middle East."

You mean like is has done in Gaza with Hamas and Lebanon with Hezbollah, right?

Pretty funny stuff Jennifer, keep it coming!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 6, 2011 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Amazing piece there Jennifer.

The truth is that no one knows for certain what is going on in Egypt, this includes the President and the media.

It is the height of condescension to blame anyone of being out of step according to your "supreme" insight.

We should be on the side of democracy? So, what happened to the neighboring Palestinians? They had their vote and made their choice: Hamas.

In case you are wondering, Hamas is a derivative of the Muslim Brotherhood. In case you are wondering, the Muslim Brotherhood represents the largest organized group in Egypt.

Jennifer, to hold yourself out as the supposed arbiter is ridiculous. If you had the capacity, you should be ashamed.

Posted by: Captain_Universe | February 6, 2011 5:09 PM | Report abuse

“Mubarak is going one way or the other.”

You've got that right! He is 82(!) for Pete’s sake.

Posted by: nvjma | February 6, 2011 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Egypt's military IS the autocracy - Mubarak is the CinC, not a personality-in-charge. This, from Foreign Affairs, tries to frame this view of events: "...Contrary to the dominant media narrative, the Egyptian state did not experience a regime breakdown. The protests certainly rocked the system and had Mubarak on his heels, but at no time did the uprising seriously threaten Egypt's regime. Although many of the protesters, foreign governments, and analysts have concentrated on the personality of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, those surrounding the embattled president, who make up the wider Egyptian regime, made sure the state's viability was never in question. This is because the country's central institution, the military, which historically has influenced policy and commands near-monopolistic economic interests, never balked.

...Egypt's governing elites have used different parts of the regime to serve as arsonist and firefighter. ..."

Posted by: K2K2 | February 7, 2011 9:36 AM | Report abuse

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