The Pharaoh Fell, but His Poisonous Legacy Lingers. By Fouad Ajami. Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2013.
More posts on Morsi and Egypt, here, here, here, and here.
years ago, on Feb. 11, 2011, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped aside,
overwhelmed by 18 days of protests. Silent and remote, he had ruled for three
decades. He had offered his countrymen—and powers beyond—the sole gift of
stability. He was a gendarme on the banks of the Nile. Now his country was done
with him, and the vaunted stability of his near 30-year reign was torn asunder.
it is only against the backdrop of the sordid political landscape of today’s
Egypt—the hooliganism of the young, the lawlessness, the fault line between a
feeble secular camp and a cynical Muslim Brotherhood bent on monopolizing
political power—that the true work of the Mubarak tyranny can be fully
appreciated. The “deep state” he presided over—a Ministry of Interior with
nearly two million functionaries, a police force that ran amok—is Mubarak’s
disorder today in Egypt’s streets is taken by some as proof that the despot
knew what he was doing, and that Egyptians are innately given to tyranny. But
that view misses the damage that this man and his greedy family and retainers
inflicted on a nation of more than 80 million people that once had nobler ideas
of its place in the world.
the Egyptian people credit for their mercy and forbearance. The Pharaoh was
deposed and his two sons, who sat astride the country's economy and politics,
were hauled off to prison, but they were spared the gruesome end that was meted
out next door to Moammar Gadhafi. A sickly Mubarak was humbled, wheeled into
court on a gurney. But he was not sent to the gallows. True, some of the
families of victims struck down during the upheaval howled for his blood. But
the day of his reckoning was deferred as the judiciary let the matter run in
the hope that the aged former ruler would succumb to a natural death.
odd, this tale of Hosni Mubarak. He had started out as a modest officer who had
risen to power through the patronage and will of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.
Mubarak had not been imaginative or brave—and that was what recommended him to
the flamboyant Sadat. Where Sadat had been unabashedly open in his
identification with American power, the new man would be more discreet. Where
Sadat had been a trailblazer who had made that celebrated journey to Jerusalem,
Mubarak would keep the peace with the Israelis, but keep them at arm’s length.
his reign, a toxic brew poisoned the life of Egypt—a mix of anti-modernism, anti-Americanism
and anti-Zionism. That trinity ran rampant in the universities and the
professional syndicates and the official media. As pillage had become the
obsession of the ruling family and its retainers, the underclass was left to
the rule of darkness and to a culture of conspiracy. The middle class was
tentative and timid, unsure of itself. It knew the defects of the regime but
could not contest its power.
important, with the Muslim Brotherhood quietly toiling in the shadows, broad
segments of the middle class succumbed to the theocratic temptation. Wealth
accumulated in the Arab states and the Gulf had remade the Brotherhood. Its
members were sly: They accepted the subtle accommodation offered them by the
historical role of the centralized state in Egypt as the principal agent of
social change was abandoned. No wonder the Brotherhood sat out the early and
decisive phase of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Courage was not the
hallmark of the Brotherhood. Its theorists were still maintaining that the
ruler was due deference and obedience while a new generation of activists was
battling the security forces.
the Brotherhood had no scruples about “hijacking” a revolution that was not
theirs. The annals of revolutions the world over bear testimony to the truth
that the rule of the moderates in times of revolutions is always undone by the
ascendancy of the extremists. (Think of the liberals who rode with Ayatollah
Khomeini in 1979—so many of them were cut down by firing squads.)
was no surprise that the Egyptian liberals and secularists quarreled among
themselves and were feckless and divided. The dictatorship had not allowed them
political space and experience. In hindsight, the tipping point in the ruin of
Egypt came in 2005. The dictator rigged yet another presidential election, his
fifth in a row, and he ordered a decent young rival, Ayman Nour, to prison on
trumped up charges. The administration of George W. Bush grasped the importance
of the moment, but Mubarak brushed their entreaties aside.
Obama and his advisers had two years on their watch before the upheaval. But
they lacked the interest and the determination—and the knowledge of matters
Egyptian. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Mubarak as a friend of
her family, and Vice President Joe Biden opined that the regime was stable even
as millions of Egyptians had gone out to push it into its grave.
a stalemate paralyzes Egypt: The Brotherhood won a plurality in parliamentary
elections that began in 2011, but an activist judiciary declared the elections
unconstitutional and ordered parliament dissolved in June 2012. The Brotherhood
drafted and secured the passage of a new constitution by referendum in
December, but those unreconciled to the reign of the Brotherhood wanted nothing
to do with it.
Morsi has the presidency, but he was defied some days ago when he ordered a
curfew in the cities of Ismailia, Suez and Port Said. Thousands went into the
streets to sing and dance and play soccer in the night. From afar, those with a
superficial knowledge of Egypt think of it as a country willing to slip under
the yoke of the Brotherhood. But Egypt is a skeptical, weary country; it wears
its faith lightly, and its people have an innate suspicion of those who overdo
their religious zeal.
economy is wrecked and the government has run down its foreign reserves as it
attempts to maintain a system of costly subsidies. A $4.8 billion International
Monetary Fund loan was tentatively agreed on, but the government was unwilling
to put through the austerity measures required by the loan. Only the
remittances of Egyptians abroad, an impressive total of $19 billion in 2012,
averted catastrophe. The ruling bargain that had the Egyptians give up their
freedom for bread, and for the handouts of the state, still obtains. The old
regime fell, but its ways endure.
freedom is out of fashion in American official thinking, and the tumult in Arab
lands serves as an alibi for abdication. But we should know that the bargain
with the Arab dictatorships brought our way the jihadists. Two products of
Mubarak’s Egypt must be figured into an audit of that regime: the Cairene al
Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the psychopath Mohammad Atta, who led the
death pilots of 9/11. It was folly and naiveté to think that we really knew and
could befriend the tyrants.