By Niv Elis
As the world watches the unprecedented protests in Cairo unfold live on Al Jazeera, America and Israel face an intractable dilemma over who to support. To lovers of democracy and human rights, the Egyptian people’s uprising is a phenomenon to be encouraged; the Egyptian regime is a police state (though milder than, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia), which for nearly 60 years has held an iron grip on the country’s political institutions, limiting the media and sweeping aside opposition rights. Like all people, Egyptians deserve better, and it seems incomprehensible that Western governments would fail to support them.
Yet for decades, Egypt’s autocracy has contributed a modicum of geopolitical stability to the region. Having established itself as the leader of the Arab world during the Cold War, Egypt made waves when it broke from its Soviet patronage and the Arab League to ally with the United States and make peace with Israel. Thus was born a conundrum: the government carried out important strategic choices, receiving huge sums of American aid and opening economic pathways in exchange for international policies often resented by its population. Complicating matters, Egypt was an incubator of radical Islamist thought: the philosophical grandfather of Al Qaida and Salafi jihadism was Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, and the more mildly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928, spawned Hamas. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cleverly lumped these groups with anti-regime elements seeking democracy and human rights. Ultimately, Mubarak fought off the most extreme of the groups, while allowing the Brotherhood to transform into a defanged opposition party. Notably, the Brotherhood denounces political violence, except where Israel is concerned.
Nobody can know what the aftermath of the Egyptian protests will be. When Iranians deposed the pro-Western Shah in 1979, it took several years for the broad coalition of revolutionaries to fight out their differences, leaving the Ayatollahs in firm control and shattering any semblance of democracy or human rights (See Moment’s feature “How Jew-Friendly Persia Became Anti-Semitic Iran”). The average Egyptian still views Israel very unfavorably, which could prove a rallying call for future politicians. The linkage of Israel and the United States to the current hated regime only exacerbates the problem.
Israel fears the prospect of a populist or Islamist government coming to power in Egypt, which could lead to a break in the 32-year peace that, though cold, has proved remarkably durable. Israel and the United States could lose the support of an ally that has served as an interlocutor between them and the Palestinians, not to mention between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. Should Egypt revert to a confrontational relationship with Israel, it could destabilize the whole region and undermine any future peace talks between Israel and its neighbors.
The Obama administration is seeking a stable transition, but unmistakably hedging its bets as it grapples with the complexities, trying to curry favor with the population by acknowledging their legitimate grievances without explicitly disavowing the Mubarak regime. In a statement today, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.” The West could throw its weight behind Mohamed ElBaradai, the opposition figure who won a Nobel Peace Prize as head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, but that would be tricky should the Mubarak regime survive. When the future of peace is at stake, it turns out that supporting democracy is no easy task.