Egypt: Our Ally?
The mantra of the press is that the United States is likely to lose its major Arab ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Certainly Mubarak does some of what the United States would have him do – things he believed were in his interest, such as opposing Hamas – but he does other things as well. Egypt was no help at all on Iraq and Mubarak’s understanding of Iran as a threat to Egypt was very late in coming.
The mantra of the press is that the United States is likely to lose its major Arab ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Certainly Mubarak does some of what the United States would have him do – things he believed were in his interest, such as opposing Hamas – but he does other things as well. Egypt was no help at all on Iraq and Mubarak’s understanding of Iran as a threat to Egypt was very late in coming. His determination to keep the lid on his domestic pot, including turning public anger toward Coptic Christians and accusing Israel of sending sharks to attack Egyptian swimmers off Sinai, made him at best a weak reed on which to hang American policy, and at worst, a finger in the dike of raging anger that is now likely be co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood. He is less an ally than a client.
Mubarak remains/remained in power through the steady support of the armed forces sucking up billions in U.S. military assistance – one not-unreasonable reason Americans are held in such low esteem by the Egyptian public. American money built an army that confronts no foreign enemy simply to allow Mubarak to pay off the generals and possibly to feed their revenge fantasies about destroying Israel. The Israeli government and military generally believes, “Better a cold peace than a hot war,” and they’re right as long as Egypt makes a strategic choice for peace. For how much longer will Mubarak be setting Egypt’s strategic priorities?
And then what? The Egyptian public – like the Jordanian public – has never been primed by its government to see Israel as anything other than an enemy. And it is hard to imagine that the Egyptian military thinks of Israel in any but hostile terms.
It is this army in which the United States appears to have vested some of its hope for the future of the regime – even in the absence of Mubarak. New Vice President Omar Suleiman was the chief of foreign intelligence. The new prime minister was formerly the chief of the air force, as was Mubarak before becoming vice president to Sadat. Mohammed El-Baradei, who appears to have some American support despite his apparent pro-Iranian and pro-Brotherhood sentiments, would need the support of the army to take control of the country, even on an interim basis. The Muslim Brotherhood might also want to co-opt the military. The Brotherhood’s enemy has been the internal security police – the ones who opened fire on the demonstrators – not the army, and the army was welcomed by the demonstrators in a number of places.
The idea of a military-run Egyptian government – whether with or without El-Baradei as the public face of the Muslim Brotherhood – should alarm the United States and the West.
Former U.S. Ambassador Edward Walker was on the Sunday talk shows saying that the demonstrators were angry over the absence of a Palestinian state and that Israel had to do something to help mitigate the problem in Egypt. While it is hard for us to imagine the riots of Cairo and Suez as a response to anything other than the repressive and economically stultified Egyptian government, it is true that the Egyptian government has always needed an external enemy. Years of rampant anti-Semitism, de-legitimization of Israel in the official Egyptian press and the unwillingness of the government to allow Israel normal relations has been a defining policy of the Mubarak government.
We’re planning not to be surprised by an outbreak of anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment in the crowds in Cairo. The United States may consider Mubarak an ally, but we suspect that as he grows more desperate, he will lash out at us and at Israel in a last gasp effort to stay ahead of his own people.