Fantasy and the Egyptian Future

Let's remember something that nobody wants to hear right now. The revolution in Egypt succeeded because the army didn't want President Husni Mubarak any more. When people say things like: The army wouldn't shoot down its own people. Why? It has done so before.

In normal times the army would have been content to let Mubarak rule until he died, despite being very unhappy with his behavior. He had been declining as a leader due to his age; had refused to name a vice-president, step down, or prepare seriously for succession; and he was trying to foist his son, Gamal, on them who was not a military man and was inadequate for the job.

When the demonstrations began and built up the army had a choice: do nothing or fight for Mubarak. Those with grievances -- and everyone in Egypt has lots of grievances -- seeing that nobody would stop them, poured into the streets. Hence, a people's revolution. Something similar happened in Tunisia, though the civil society base for democracy -- and chances for success -- are far higher there.

Now, what happens in Algeria or Syria, for example? "Their" dictators are tougher than "our" dictators. These other countries do not face this special situation and the security forces do not hesitate to break up demonstrations. People do not want to be killed or beaten, so they don't come into the streets.

Is that a jaundiced or cynical view? No, that's how politics in authoritarian states works.

From this, we can draw conclusions:

First, it is possible that Arab politics have been transformed forever by people power. But it is equally or more possible that this is a matter of one uprising, one revolution, one time. 

Second, the conclusion that the usual rules of Middle East politics have disappeared is greatly exaggerated. If you think that democracy cannot lead to violent Islamists taking power, consider the Muslim-majority country in the region with the longest tradition of democracy: Lebanon, where Hezb'allah and its allies now run things. Consider Algeria, where free elections (you can blame it on the military if you want) led to a bloody civil war. Think about Turkey where, though the regime still operates basically by democratic norms, the noose is tightening (though there it may well not be irreversible).

Third, without stinting the courage and efforts of the urban, middle-class, young, Facebook crowd, the Muslim Brotherhood had more to do with this event than Western observers realize. It was in close touch with the Facebook crowd and knew what was going on at every moment. It was not caught by surprise but simply held back to avoid committing itself to a devastating defeat that would end in harsh repression. The first thing the government forces did when the events started was to round up the usual suspects, that is Brotherhood leaders.

Fourth, what sense is a policy that rushes to topple allies as horrible dictators while flattering and making concessions to worse, actually aggressive dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad? (And once again, for the record, the United States should have worked quietly with the Egyptian leaders to send Mubarak into retirement and manage an orderly liberalization.)

Finally, history has not ended in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood will continue to maneuver patiently for power. The military will set limits and implement them. All the radical dictatorships and movements that hate America, the West, Israel, and real democracy are still working all-out (and far more cleverly than their Western opponents) around the clock.

The apparent inability of the Western debate to grasp even the simplest point is devastating. Take the endlessly repeated line that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence. It renounced violence within Egypt as a condition to being able to operate at all. That policy could be reversed at any moment.

Meanwhile, it continues to advocate violence not only against Israel but also against -- though this point has not appeared a single time in the mass media -- the United States! If one side is sophisticated and realistic while the other engages in fantasies, who do you expect to win? And those roles are precisely the opposite of what Western hubris thinks. 

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center's site is  and of his blog, Rubin Reports,
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