The Egypt We Paid For

(cross-posted @TAC)

As I write in snow-covered Westchester, New York fires are breaking out in perhaps a half dozen National Democratic Party headquarters in Egypt. Unfortunately, most of our media and commentators are woefully ignorant the state of Egypt. But that doesn’t stop them from picking a new leader and rewriting their constitution. Here is Jackson Diehl in today’s Washington Post:

Mubarak should step down and be replaced by a transitional government, headed by ElBaradei and including representatives of all pro-democracy forces. That government could then spend six months to a year rewriting the constitution, allowing political parties to freely organize and preparing for genuinely democratic elections. Given time to establish themselves, secular forces backed by Egypt’s growing middle class are likely to rise to the top in those elections – not the Islamists that Mubarak portrays as the only alternative.

The whole exercise is galling, considering that Mubarak has been under U.S. sponsorship for decades, and has received strong support even until the last two weeks. Does Diehl think these angry Egyptians want another U.S. crony? But it is worse than that – most of the commentary on Egypt is based on a fantasy that the opposition to Mubarak would naturally be a rights-respecting, pro-market democratic movement.

Four years ago, during some of the headiest days of Bush’s “democracy agenda”, our own State Department officials in Cairo told me that truly liberal parties in Egypt were “interesting to talk to but totally insignificant.” The idea that there is some huge reserve of middle class support for liberal democracy is an untested fantasy. Notice Diehl doesn’t bother to name any of the pro-democracy forces. Does he really believe the New Wafd Party – which has never held more than a few seats- is ready and to lead Egypt? Or does his hope lie with the National Democratic Front which began in 2007? All the elected Egyptian officials over the past two decades who can be fairly described as liberal could fit comfortably in my living room. The reason Diehl wants months for these parties to organize is that the only organized opposition force in Egypt is the Islamists, whom Mubarak has been unsuccessfully trying to appease in the past three years.

Any non-NDP government will include (or be lead by) the anti-American, anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood, who regularly get a strong percentage of the vote in Egypt, though they are a banned party. Dhiel may dream of a secular middle class, but the Brotherhood’s support comes mainly from the professional classes – doctors, lawyers, and other trade associations. The image of Muslim extremists as the poor, disenfranchised and easily-led is another self-flattering Western fantasy. This morning, reports are coming in that the Brotherhood is joining the protests and giving them a distinctively “religious” character.

This is no defense of the NDP or Mubarak. They have had an impossible needle to thread. They could choose to cede some political space to the Muslim Brotherhood and-by definition- lose legitimacy. Or they could continue to repress them and the other small opposition groups and… lose legitimacy.

The fact, rarely mentioned this past week, is that the United States sends over $800 million in direct economic aid to Egypt along with $1.3 billion a year in military aid. The guns being used to beat protestors this week were bought with American tax dollars. Foreign aid to poor countries like Egypt creates both the impression and the reality that the government is more solicitous of its Ameircan sponsor than of its own people. Foreign aid also makes governments less anxious for domestic prosperity, and Egypt’s chronically high unemployment is a sure sign of that. We send this aid to ensure a stable non-Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt that is friendly to the United States and Israel. If the riots and protests lead to the fall of Mubarak’s government, we’ll have neither. Egypt is more likely to turn into a base of operations for Al-Queda than it is a liberal democracy. We’ve been making payments on such a disaster since 1975.

In the meantime, prepare to hear more pundits rhapsodize about Elbaradei and the coming reign of righteousness, democracy, and prosperity in Egypt. It is the same tune we heard for Chalabi in Iraq, Karzai in Afghanistan, and free elections in Palestine.

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