The year started with seemingly glorious news from Egypt: tens of thousands of people rallying in Tahrir Square to demand the end of dictatorship and the advent of representative government. It is ending on a grim note with the Muslim Brotherhood winning 47 percent of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections and even more hard-line Salafists winning another 21 percent. The second round of voting, which ended Thursday, is expected to confirm those results. Egyptian liberals now fear, as two of them wrote recently in Tablet magazine, that their country might “collapse into Islamist totalitarianism, or, even worse, total chaos.”
Does this vindicate the warnings of Realpolitikers—including most Israelis—who cautioned that President Obama was wrong to abandon Hosni Mubarak? More broadly, is this evidence that democratization in Muslim lands is a bad idea?
Not really. Actually, recent events show why the U.S. should have been more consistent in applying its democratic principles in the past—and why we need to do better in the future.
By the time that massive protests erupted against the Mubarak regime he was a goner, one way or another. The only way he could have kept his grip on power would have been to slaughter his own people in the streets. But it is far from clear that the Egyptian army would have been willing to fire on its own people. And as the examples of Syria and Libya demonstrate, even a willingness to slaughter without mercy is no longer a guarantee of a dictator’s staying power. Moreover, if Mubarak had opened fire to stay in power, it is hard to imagine the U.S. remaining allied to him afterward. By carrying out a bloodbath, Mubarak would have sacrificed whatever scraps of legitimacy he had left, at home or abroad.
So Obama was not wrong to finally withdraw U.S. support from Mubarak. Nor was his action necessarily decisive. Obama was merely acknowledging the inevitable. The real mistake was made earlier—by a long line of presidents, from Reagan to Obama, who countenanced Mubarak’s dictatorial rule for so long.
Some of us had been arguing for years that it was a mistake to give Mubarak a blank check. In 2006, for example, I published an op-ed arguing that the U.S. should have punished Mubarak for jailing his chief liberal critic, Ayman Nour, by “trimming or eliminating” our $1.8 billion annual subsidy to his regime and “redirecting the money to promotion of civil society in the Middle East.”
That advice was ignored even by George W. Bush, supposedly a wild-eyed “neocon,” because political reform in Egypt always took a backseat to short-term imperatives to win Mubarak’s cooperation on issues such as fighting al-Qaeda and fostering the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”
Unfortunately, our Mubarak-über-alles policy backfired: It made a revolution, rather a gradual devolution of power, more likely—and when the revolution came it made it more likely that power would be seized by Islamists because the mosque was the only place where any independent political organizing could occur.
To see how things might have worked out differently, look at Morocco. I traveled there last week as a guest of its government, which is doing what Mubarak wouldn’t: opening up its political system in a controlled way. King Mohammed VI has forged a new constitution that allows the largest party in parliament to form a government while keeping for himself control of national security and religious affairs. In Morocco, as in Egypt, an Islamist party has emerged as the winner of a recent election. But, unlike in Egypt, there is little fear of the dark of night of totalitarianism descending. That’s in part because Morocco’s Islamists, organized in the Justice and Development Party, are so moderate; they are primarily focused (or say they are) on fighting corruption and expanding services such as health care and schooling, not on banning alcohol or repressing women. But it’s also because the king serves as an effective check on their power.
To be sure, it’s easier for Mohammed to play this role than it would have been for Mubarak because the king has far greater legitimacy as the heir to a well-established throne, as a descendent of the Prophet, and as “Commander of the Faithful.” But Mubarak could have enhanced his own authority if he had ceded a measure of political power years ago. The fact that he did not—and that the U.S. did not pressure him to do so—helps to account for the mess that Egypt currently finds itself in.
There is no good alternative left in Egypt: Either continue with some degree of rule by the military or cede complete power to potentially radical Islamists. In those circumstances, the least-bad option is for Washington to support the army in continuing to provide a check on unfettered majoritarian rule. But we might have avoided this difficult dilemma if we had pushed earlier to open up the sclerotic Egyptian political system.
This is a salutary lesson here in dealing with other illiberal allies such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. needs to push for real reform in those places before the current, pro-Western rulers find themselves toppled by anti-American revolutionaries. There is scant cause to believe that most Egyptians—or most other Muslims—want to live under Taliban-like rule, but extremists will be poised to seize power if more moderate parties cannot organize.