Commentary Magazine


Hillary’s Flawed Hindsight on Mubarak

Hillary Clinton is dealing with the challenge of running for president while the failed foreign policy of the administration she served–as its chief diplomat, no less–is ongoing. But at least that gives her the opportunity to respond to events as they happen. Her memoir, by contrast, required her to record her pronouncements on events and hope they aren’t made irrelevant (or can be updated for the paperback edition).

This has made her book, according to pretty much every reviewer in the world, painfully, almost abusively boring. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting tidbits. One that has not received much attention is her discussion in the book of her disagreement with President Obama over how to handle Tahrir Square. When the crowds became impossible to ignore, the president called for Hosni Mubarak to step down. It put Obama on the side of the people in the streets instead of the ruthless dictator oppressing them–a lesson Obama may have learned from his experience turning his back on the Iranian people in 2009.

But it put him at odds with some in his own administration, Clinton among them. The former secretary of state portrays her side of the equation as realist, Obama’s as idealist, and claims Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon shared her concerns. She was, she said, “concerned that we not be seen as pushing a longtime partner out the door, leaving Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the region to an uncertain, dangerous future.”

Clinton then writes what may look in hindsight like prescience, but that view is flawed:

Historically, transitions from dictatorship to democracy are fraught with challenges and can easily go terribly wrong. In Iran in 1979, for example, extremists hijacked the broad-based popular revolution against the Shah and established a brutal theocracy. If something similar happened in Egypt, it would be a catastrophe, for the people of Egypt as well as for Israeli and U.S. interests.

Despite the size of the protests in Tahrir Square, they were largely leaderless, driven by social media and word of mouth rather than a coherent opposition movement. After years of one-party rule, Egypt’s protesters were ill prepared to contest open elections or build credible democratic institutions. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, an eighty-year-old Islamist organization, was well positioned to fill a vacuum if the regime fell. Mubarak had driven the Brotherhood underground, but it had followers all over the country and a tightly organized power structure. The group had renounced violence and made some efforts to appear more moderate. But it was impossible to know how it would behave and what would happen if it gained control.

In fact we really did know how the Brotherhood would behave in power, but that should only strengthen Hillary’s perceived caution here. She recommended the president send an envoy to Mubarak with a few concessions: “an end to the country’s repressive emergency law that had been in effect since 1981, a pledge not to run in the elections already planned for September, and an agreement not to put forward his son Gamal as his successor.” None of this would have placated the opposition, but it didn’t matter: the envoy presented the proposal, and Mubarak wasn’t even listening. “Like so many autocrats before him,” Clinton writes of Mubarak, “he had come to view himself as inseparable from the state.”

And that is why Clinton’s proposal to keep Mubarak in place and buy time would have been doomed as well. Her assessment of the political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood is correct, but she’s wrong to think a minor delay in Mubarak’s ouster would have made a difference.

Political liberalism needs its own institutions to flourish. Egypt didn’t have the civil society infrastructure for democracy, and it would have taken years to build even a rudimentary foundation. That’s why Clinton’s own administration dropped the ball on Egypt and the Arab world in part by cutting funding for democracy promotion and civil society groups there. And it’s a mistake the Obama administration is intent on repeating. As Jamie Dettmer reports, Obama is not only seeking further cuts in democracy programs, but wants to remove important safeguards for civil society programs that it will fund. “This is turning the clock back to when the State Department would avoid funding civil society groups blacklisted by their governments,” the director of one D.C.-based nonprofit told Dettmer.

As Elliott Abrams wrote in this magazine in 2012, “I well remember a leading Egyptian liberal saying to me in 2003 that she did not favor free elections right then in Egypt; she favored them in a decade’s time if she and others had those 10 years to organize freely.” A free election right away meant a victory for either the Brotherhood or the regime. Which is what Hillary feared, and what happened.

But the real solution would have been to use America’s leverage over the army–the Egyptian army, remember, abandoned Mubarak when the time came–to open up the political system, gradually if necessary, to the liberals. It was already de facto open to Islamist organizing, which took place in the mosques.

Even if Mubarak announced some reforms to Tahrir Square, would they have believed him? He had liberalized, albeit only slightly, in the past only to tighten his grip again when the Americans’ backs were turned. The Mubarak regime was a recipe for perpetual oppression and was responsible, like it or not, for the simultaneous strengthening of the Brotherhood.

The “stability” mirage, for which Hillary argued, fooled a lot people–maybe even most. But it has now been exposed as the mirage it was. The administration’s policy needn’t have propped up an aging dictator for a few more months, it only needed to stop abandoning Egypt’s true democrats.

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