Losing Egypt, Losing the Mid-East
While the world debates the threat of Iranian weapons and their long-term effects on Israel and the Persian Gulf area, events may soon reach a critical mass in the most central and important Arab country, Egypt, in ways that endanger not only Egyptian-Israeli ties, but also the entire fabric of stability in the oil-rich Mid-East.
Iran, though large and important, makes for both the geographical and religious fringe of the Mid-East. Egypt, meanwhile, lies at the heart of the Mid-East and symbolizes the region's dominant Sunni Arab community.
Recently, Israel warned all its citizens vacationing in the Sinai Desert to evacuate the area immediately because of an influx of armed Libyan extremists bent on killing Israelis.
"The whole area is becoming a kind of 'Wild West' with all kinds of groups," declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a radio interview.
A few days earlier, Israel's Shin Bet security agency confirmed that two of the rockets used in recent attacks on the Israeli resort city of Eilat came from the weapons depots of Libya, smuggled across the border into Egypt. But there are other troubling signs.
Egyptian officials recently said they were unilaterally changing or annulling the treaty under which Egypt sells natural gas to Israel. Ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa applauded the gas cut-off. Moussa is a leading candidate to win the coming election, and he projects a variant of the Pan-Arab views of the late and not lamented Gamal Abdul-Nasser, who tried to destroy Israel and leaned hard against U.S. interests in the area. This is an area of agreement between the largely secular Moussa and some of the leading Islamist candidates.
Some Egyptian officials deny abrogating signed agreements with Israel, saying they merely want a better price for Egyptian gas, but this appears to be the first time the Egyptian officials have shown that they are acting parallel to terrorists who have blown up the pipeline to Israel and Jordan fourteen times in the last year.
Egypt's military regime, these events show, may be losing control as presidential elections near next month, and the military has banned several leading presidential election candidates, especially angering the Islamic parties. The generals may need a way to placate them, and Israel (and the ties with it) are a convenient scapegoat.
There is also trouble on Egypt's western border. Obama's idea of "leading from behind" in Libya was slow and ineffective, allowing Libyan weapons to proliferate.
Israeli officials say al-Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Libyan terrorists are all operating in the Sinai Desert on Israel's southern border, some of them having developed strong working relationships with members of the eleven Bedouin tribes in Sinai who specialize in smuggling drugs, weapons, and even enslaved women.
This is a recipe for disaster. A failed state in Afghanistan led to an al-Qaeda base there, but a similar situation in Egypt, the most important and populous Arab country, would be far worse. It might be even more strategically disastrous than the fall of Iran to the ayatollahs when Jimmy Carter was president.
The Arabs have a saying: Alf sanna istibdaad, wa la-sanna fawda. "Better a thousand years of authoritarianism and not one year of anarchy." What we now see in Egypt is the result of one year of anarchy, helped by President Barack Obama.
Obama made a dramatic speech in Cairo in 2009 in which he courted the Muslim Brotherhood, thus undermining Egypt's Husni Mubarak. Mubarak might have been a less-than-perfect ally, but he was far better than the Brotherhood that Obama and his aides mistakenly consider "moderates." He who asks terrorists to dinner should expect terror and anarchy for dessert.
Obama's anti-Mubarak stance was not a new position. After 9-11, he spoke to a Chicago newspaper about the need for the U.S. not to fight in Iraq, but instead to fight against government corruption in the Middle East, citing Egypt as an example. He strongly suggested that corruption in Egypt fed poverty and helped cause 9-11.
But Obama was wrong. Corruption is not the main cause of Egyptian poverty, and poverty was not the main cause of 9-11 or terror anywhere. Fighting corruption is fine, everywhere from the Mid-East to the Mid-West -- and even in Chicago. But corruption is not the driver of terror, and fighting it does not require casting off a nearly irreplaceable ally.
Mubarak, for all his faults, worked like President Anwar Sadat to lead Egypt to Infitaah -- opening Egypt to the West, much like Mikhail Gorbachev did with glasnost. Sadat and Mubarak felt that a Western orbit could put a bit more money in the average person's pocket. Egypt pulled away from Russian political/economic models. Tourism and foreign investment grew.
Both Mubarak and Sadat did not make miracles overnight, but their move toward the West and peace with Israel showed slow but steady gains for average Egyptians.
Yet Egypt is a place where a million babies are born every nine months, where 97% of the people live on two percent of the land, a thin strip on the Nile. For Egyptians, it often feels like Egypt is running up a down escalator, fighting just to stay in the same spot. Now even that is gone, as tourism and foreign currency reserves have both plummeted.
Years from now we may not recall Obama's well-parsed words in Cairo, but we will definitely be seeing the way they helped destroy the Sadat-Mubarak heritage of peace and stability in the region.
Mubarak should have left on his own, and he should not have tried to pass power to his son, Gamal. But Obama, Hillary Clinton, and then-CIA boss Leon Panetta all pushed Mubarak out the door too quickly. They were patient with rulers of Syria or Iran, who did far worse to their people than Mubarak did to his, while also trying to harm the U.S. and its allies.
Elsewhere in the Mid-East, Obama's hasty comments and impatient policy have hurt U.S. interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, by forcing U.S. soldiers to punch a public clock timed to Obama's campaign schedule rather than to the situation on the ground. This allowed a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and Iranian intervention in Iraq.
What Iraqi or Afghani wants to ally himself with a U.S. sheriff about to leave town? Obama brags about keeping his withdrawal timetable, but in the Mid-East, Obama's version of "hope and change" has become "hype and chaos."
The last time a U.S. president's anti-corruption and pro-human rights crusade failed so miserably was when Jimmy Carter and his advisers thought Ayatollah Khomeini was a better bargain than the shah of Iran. We are still paying for that error. Jimmy Carter's U.N. ambassador even spoke of Khomeini as "some kind of saint," while Obama and his aides believe that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey's Islamist leadership are the face of moderate Arab democracy.
One can only guess how long we will pay for Obama's many errors.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, just published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He is a former reporter, correspondent, and editor respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, and The Jerusalem Post, and he served as a strategic affairs adviser in Israel's Ministry of Public Security and as an adviser to Israeli negotiating teams in 1991-92 at the Madrid Summit and thereafter.