The Brotherhood, Sooner or Later

It was a great rhetorical moment. President George W. Bush, speaking in Whitehall, succinctly and eloquently framed the problem of 21st Century Western policy in the Middle East:

It was a great rhetorical moment. President George W. Bush, speaking in Whitehall, succinctly and eloquently framed the problem of 21st Century Western policy in the Middle East:

(Britain and the U.S.) in the past have been willing to make a bargain to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold. As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own back yard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

But rhetorical moments are only that and while the United States has made slow and difficult progress in helping Iraq find consensual government, elsewhere in the region we remained willing to turn that blind eye for perceived benefit. Like Egypt.

Asked whether the United States was taking the side of government or the protesters in Egypt, Secretary of State Clinton split the difference. Tying the Obama administration to its predecessors – the Bush and Clinton administrations – she said the U.S. had been “on the side of the people” during “more than 30 years of American cooperation with the government in Cairo.” The United States, she said, is trying to “keep on the message we’ve been on, convey it publicly and privately and stand ready to help.”

What message would that be? Help who do what?

Words out of the Obama administration sound more like the Carter administration than the Bush or Clinton White Houses. In what looks remarkably like the undermining of the Shah, the U.S. government has spoken out of several sides of its official mouth: While Secretary Clinton stands with “the people” who very much appear to want Hosni Mubarak out, she said the United States “advocates no specific outcome.” Vice President Biden said, “I wouldn’t call Mubarak a dictator” and while he should “begin to move in the direction that – to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there,” Biden said he shouldn’t resign. Presidential advisor David Axelrod, “(Obama has) on several occasions directly confronted President Mubarak… And pushed him on the need for political reform. Exactly to get ahead of this. This is a project he’s been working on for 2 years.”

They all appear to believe this is a contest between Mubarak and “the people,” which, if Mubarak had just been a little nicer, or didn’t rig elections, or didn’t turn off Twitter, or didn’t arrest people in the middle of the night, or had political parties and a free press, or didn’t take bribes, Egypt might have escaped the current upheaval. Unrecognized is the fact that if he had done any/all of those things, the upheaval would have come sooner and the Muslim Brotherhood would have had Cairo sooner rather than later.

Mass protest can happen without a strong guiding hand, but revolution is something else. The Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t make the Iranians unhappy with the Shah – he did that – but the Ayatollah’s supporters provided rice to the people so they would know that when they went to protest, their families would eat. And when the Shah left because the United States was no longer willing to support him, it was the Ayatollah’s factions that took the reins from the interim government supported by the United States.

That is not to say that the United States should support Mubarak to a bloody end, but to note the distinct limitations to our ability to get what we want. We want Poland (the strong guiding hand behind Solidarity, the Catholic Church, with later help from the AFL-CIO), but we are more likely to get Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood was born in Egypt and has a strong network of social and political institutions – much like Hamas that took over Gaza and Hezbollah that is in the process of taking over Lebanon.

While the United States is supporting former IAEA Chief Mohammed el-Baradai as a possible replacement for Mubarak, he is likely at best to be an interim figure – putting a face acceptable to the West on a government he doesn’t control – until either the Egyptian army or the Brotherhood takes over. Or, until the army is co-opted by the Brotherhood. Again, watch Lebanon – where the United States continued to support the Lebanese Armed Forces with equipment and training even as Hezbollah moved into positions of political power in Beirut. The new Lebanese prime minister says he wants good relations with the United States. Who doubts that he is the acceptable face on the Hezbollah’s revolution?

The United States can want what it wants, but after watching the pot boil in Egypt for years and being willing or able to bring nothing to the table except support for the dictator against his own people while claiming we want something else, we will assuredly get what we get.