BY MICHAEL RUBIN, AOL NEWS—-
Few Egyptians will mourn Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. His three-decade rule was sclerotic. He not only failed to address growing economic failings but also refused to even listen. As a guest observer at Mubarak’s 2006 National Democratic Party convention, I watched as senior officials cut microphone power to party members who used their speeches to complain about high unemployment, poor housing and a lack of basic infrastructure.
While the discrepancy between rich and poor is extreme in many Arab countries, Egypt’s population density amplifies awareness. With nearly 80 million people crammed into the narrow Nile River Valley, the rich cannot hide from the poor. Egyptians scavenging in trash dumps could see heliports on palatial mansions owned by Mubarak’s cronies. Luxury Mercedes drive by open sewers and the dispossessed living in cemeteries. Even the army will not be sad to see Mubarak go, after he tried to force his son to be his successor against the wishes of the generals.
Nor was Mubarak a good ally to the United States. In 2009, Egypt voted with the United States at the United Nations less often than did Burma, Cuba, Somalia, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. Mubarak resisted the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 and undercut the new Iraqi government after 2003. And while Mubarak opposed Iran and kept the Suez Canal open, this had more to do with Cairo’s self-interest than winning Washington’s favor. The true value of Egypt was its peace treaty with Israel, an event that predated Mubarak’s rise.
While the White House should shed no tears for Mubarak’s downfall, worries about the future are well-founded.
The best-case scenario would see a transitional government manage the county until the September election. The worst-case scenario would see the Muslim Brotherhood triumph, abandoning any pretense of a commitment to democracy as it consolidates control.
In 1992, Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian voiced this concern in the context of the cancellation of Algeria’s elections and that country’s descent into chaos, declaring, “While we believe in the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ we do not support ‘one person, one vote, one time.'”
Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing new. In fact, while many analysts look at Middle East strife through the lens of the Arab-Israel dispute, U.S. intelligence analysts noted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood back in 1946, two years before the Jewish state’s creation, warning that the group threatened stability and American interests. “These fanatical and nationalistic Moslem societies,” the analysts warned, “exploit the ignorance and poverty of the masses, and even the more enlightened Moslem leaders must cater to their fanaticism in order to retain their positions.”
Indeed, this was the case a half-century later when a Brotherhood sympathizer took Koran scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd to court in Egypt. To appease the group, the court — with Mubarak’s consent — declared Abu Zayd an apostate and forcibly divorced him from his wife, because a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim man in Egypt.
A Muslim Brotherhood victory is not assured, however. Egyptians remained scarred by the Islamist violence the group encouraged in the 1990s. As tourism revenue plummeted, Egyptians felt the bite in their wallets. Likewise, while Egyptian animus toward Israel remains high, the Brotherhood’s warning that “the people should be prepared for war against Israel” will turn off Egyptians who resent conscription and have no wish to see sons and husbands leave their jobs to fight at a new front.
Many analysts see the shadow of Iran’s Islamic revolution in the Egyptian chaos. One parallel is certain: Should Mubarak flee, it will be the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.
More than nine months passed in Iran between Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Just as Iranians demanded return of the Shah’s assets, the Brotherhood will likely demand that the West repatriate the estimate $25 billion that Mubarak siphoned off throughout his career.
If the White House is to avoid an Iran-like tragedy, it must stay one step ahead of the Brotherhood, refuse to be a populist foil and guarantee the September elections, and bestow legitimacy only upon those groups that eschew violence and abide by the Egyptian constitution.