It may take months, it may take only days, but the era of military dictators in Egypt is over. Hosni Mubarak is the last. A “leader” who flees public outrage for the safety of a remote palace in Sharm el-Sheikh, who sends his sons, including his erstwhile political heir, to safe haven in London, is finished.
Egypt’s army will not fight for Mubarak. As scenes from the streets
of Cairo show, it will not fight the people at all. Like Moscow in 1991, the silent tanks in the streets are becoming large toys for children to scamper on. That’s encouraging. But it also means that no general, no business magnate with ties to the army, can contemplate taking Mubarak’s place. One way or another the army, which ruled Egypt for 58 years, is on its way out of the center of Egyptian public life to the margins. Which, after all, is where armies belong.
That does not mean that Egypt is free of the shadow of dictatorship. After the army, the most powerful, most organized group in Egypt is the Moslem Brotherhood. This radical Islamic movement created the fanatic ideology that caused 9/11 and now rules in Iran, Lebanon and the Sudan. The Brotherhood will be glad to set up an Egyptian version of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinajad or Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrallah, leading the people on the path of Jihad against Israel and the Great Satan in Washington and doing what the Egyptian army now refuses to do — shooting its domestic enemies down in the streets.
What’s missing is the democratic center. It’s politically unorganized because Mubarak spent as much time suppressing its leaders and dissidents as he did suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood. And here is where the United States can and must play a crucial role.
The United States needs to broker an agreement between the Egyptian army and Egypt’s scattered and disorganized democrats. The army needs to agree to abandon its role as ruler of Egypt and its economy. It needs to agree to use its force to protect fledgling democratic forces, even though those forces are committed to pushing it out of Egyptian politics and ending its role in the Egyptian economy. The army needs to do this because what it, its generals, and the great majority of the Egyptian people need more than anything else are political stability and a government that can address the population growth and economic mismanagement that threaten Egypt’s future. For their part, Egypt’s democrats need to commit to leaving yesterday’s generals alone, not threaten to punish them or take away their money, however ill-gotten. The generals have to feel it’s safe for them to let go, or they won’t.
At the same time, the United States needs to implement a Marshall Plan for Egypt’s democrats. It needs to fund the formation of political parties — more than one — and help party leaders set up newspapers, grassroots organizations, etc. At the same time as it prepares Egypt for political pluralism in the future, it needs to set up a wall-to-wall transitional civilian government and not be shy about knocking heads together in order to make everyone cooperate. It should fund generous education and social service programs and make clear that those parties that cooperate will get a share in spending and administering the funds, now and in the future. The aim should be to hold elections in 18 to 24 months, when civilian democratic parties have stabilized.
Further down the line, the United States must insist on more radical reforms. For decades the Egyptian army and its allies have come to expect economic privileges, in the form of directorships of companies that enjoy monopolies over sections of the economy. That will have to stop if the Egyptian economy is to grow. Bureaucracy must be trimmed back. Subsidies must be ended and the government budget balanced — no easy task, as Americans know.
Finally, the United States has provided the Egyptian army with over a billion dollars of aid annually. This money has been channeled almost exclusively into preparing for another war with Israel, while Israel’s spending on preparations for war with Egypt has been almost zero for thirty years. This waste of money serves neither Egypt’s nor America’s interests and should be stopped. Egypt’s army should be made to understand that its proper role is defending its country from the threat of radical Islamists at home and abroad, not preparing to fight another American ally.
Does all this seem like an expensive proposition? Compared to the cost of America’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s merely nickels and dimes. A stitch in time . . .
Egypt is critical for the United States. As the most powerful country in the Arab world and the owner of the Suez Canal, Egypt is one of the linchpins of American policy in the region. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, brokered by the United States, is the key to what will remain of America’s influence in the region after the defection of Lebanon and Turkey to Iran and the impending evacuation of Iraq. The Moslem Brotherhood has promised to tear up the treaty the moment it seizes power.
The pattern proposed here, an alliance of democrats and former military dictators, turning power over to the former in return for immunity for the latter, has worked in other countries: Chile and Argentina, Spain and Portugal and Greece. There’s even a Middle Eastern precedent: Turkey.
That’s no guarantee it will work in Egypt, of course. It may prove impossible, as it did in Iraq, to get everyone to pull together. The Moslem brotherhood may prove too powerful.
But Egypt enjoys an advantage over divided Arab countries like Iraq and Lebanon, where radical Islam exploits ethnic divisions to force its way to power. Egyptian society is nearly homogeneous and deeply patriotic. The key is to create a consensus around a common picture of Egypt’s future: Moderate, committed to democratic procedures, with at least minimal guarantees for civil rights, aiming for economic stability, a free market and growth. If that can be agreed, Egypt may yet prove that an Arab, Islamic country can choose democracy, stability and development over fanaticism and yet another dictatorship.
Yitzhak Klein heads the Israel Policy Center, whose mission includes reinforcing Israel's character as a Jewish, democratic state.