For the past year, many in the United States and Israel have mourned the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Many of the same people who lamented his fall were quick to point out he was a corrupt despot who turned his country’s treaty with Israel into a “cold peace.” But once it became clear the main beneficiaries of the Arab Spring protests would not be the tiny faction of Egyptian liberals but the Muslim Brotherhood, the demise of a man who was once rightly derided for never losing an opportunity to make mischief at Israel’s expense was treated as a calamity. Yet, with today’s decision by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court that dissolved the parliament that was elected in the aftermath of the change in regime, those who longed for a Mubarak rerun may get their wish. Let’s see if they like the result any better than the Brotherhood’s power grab via elections.
As Michael wrote earlier today, the Egyptian military may be seeking to emulate the example of Algeria, where in 1991 an election victory by Islamists was overturned by the government, leading to a long and bloody civil war. If, as he points out, that means a conflict that will prevent the Brotherhood from attaining total power in Cairo, it may be worth the chaos and suffering that will ensue from the court’s decision. But those hoping presidential candidate Ahmid Shafik, a Mubarak-era retread, in combination with the Egyptian military will put down the Brotherhood, should be careful what they wish for. As awful as the prospect of the election of an Brotherhood president along with the deposed parliament might be, Israelis should be extremely wary about the possibility of a civil war taking place next door in Egypt.
The problem for the West is that there are no good alternatives. In an ideal world, Mubarak would have been replaced by a genuine democracy whose leaders were not intent on turning the most populous Arab country into an Islamist fief. But we don’t live in an ideal world. The myth of the Arab Spring being a Facebook or Twitter revolution was always bunk. Egypt’s streets are ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, the only real organized party in Egypt that can stand up to the remnants of the old regime. The army is rightly wary of the Brotherhood and fears that, at best, an Islamist-led government will emulate Turkey’s path in which the military loses power and a gradual path to religious despotism is set in motion.
Unfortunately, the idea that there can be a return to Mubarak’s authoritarian rule without the now comatose former leader is also a myth. Now that the democratic genie that has unleashed the Brotherhood has been let out of the bottle, the only way to put it back in is with the brute force that the Egyptian Army was clearly unwilling to use last year as Mubarak fell. If they do crack down and the Islamist mob resists, the result may make Assad’s massacres in Syria look like family picnics. No one can know what would follow the enactment of such a scenario. But if the best case is a repeat of the Algerian nightmare, the impact on Israel and the rest of the Middle East will be considerable.
Israel’s border with Egypt is enough of a problem now. If the Nile Valley becomes a war zone of some kind, the spillover into Gaza and other countries will make the whole region more dangerous and threaten the stability of other regimes, especially the shaky Hashemite monarchy in Jordan.
Such a scenario is enough to make a democratic transition to a Muslim Brotherhood government that would have had to make an uneasy alliance with the military to some extent look like an attractive alternative.
Despite the unfair criticism President Obama has gotten on the issue, it was never true that the United States could have saved Mubarak. If anything, the United States has even less leverage now. Those who have been carping about the loss of Mubarak need to pipe down and watch with the rest of us as we see which of the unpleasant possibilities for Egypt becomes reality.