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by Ambassador (ret) William Rugh, Ph.D.

A distinguished retired diplomat with decades of experience in the region provides us with his look at the current turmoil in the Middle East, its promises and its pitfalls.–Ed.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

The events we have witnessed in Egypt during the past three weeks contain some lessons we should think about. The first lesson is: significant changes in a country’s political system can best be brought about by the people of that country, not by outsiders. A revolution was accomplished by the efforts of the thousands of young Egyptians who were persistent in their demands, who were mature and peaceful, reacting with restraint to provocations, and who showed Mubarak and the army that they would not give up until he was gone. They were resourceful, providing medical care to the wounded, food and water to the demonstrators, and communication to the participants and the outside world, and they did it all without any help from foreigners.

There have been many other examples of real political change coming from within rather than outside. When I was ambassador to Yemen, I had occasion to discuss democracy with Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Salih, who at the time (1986) rejected my advice and told me his one-party rule and authoritarian system was more appropriate for Yemen than America’s multi-party democracy. Four years later, when Salih allowed multiple parties and a degree of press freedom, I asked him why he had changed his mind. He said he had discovered that there were opposition organizations underground in Yemen and he decided to allow them to operate openly where he could see them. He made a calculation to move democracy forward based on domestic political considerations, not my advice.

President George Bush thought he could promote democracy by occupying Iraq, and his invasion brought about some political changes there, but at a huge cost to the Iraqi people, as well as in American lives and treasure. That has hopefully discredited the idea of democracy promotion by foreign military intervention, which the Arabs opposed from the start. Moreover, most suicide bombers are motivated by the presence of a foreign military occupation, as Professor Robert Pape has so aptly demonstrated.

Diplomatic Levers

What about democracy promotion through diplomacy and foreign assistance? Some critics of the Obama administration are now arguing that Washington should have done more to support political change in Egypt and other authoritarian countries. Arab reformers have said the same. That is a valid suggestion, but doing so is not as easy as it sounds. The relationship between the United States and Egypt, as with other authoritarian countries, is complex and multi-dimensional, and we have an important stake in relations with many of those governments.  We have supported the Egyptian government’s peace treaty with Israel as in our interest and the Mubarak government held fast to it for thirty years, despite criticism from some other Arab countries. Egypt also was a key partner in the U.S.-led effort that forced Saddam Hussain to leave Iraq in 1991. And although Mubarak and other Arab leaders were not happy with our invasion of Iraq in 2003, they went along with it for the sake of good relations with Washington.  Egypt has served US interests.

It is true that the American ambassador can speak candidly to the Egyptian president about democracy in Egypt. But it is certain that the Egyptian president would reject the advice that he should initiate steps toward greater democracy. He would say it was interference in his country’s domestic affairs and none of our business. What about threatening to cut our economic and military assistance if he doesn’t bring about democracy, as some suggest? We can try that, but that is a blunt weapon that is likely to fail and backfire, as Washington discovered when Nasser was president and we blocked funding for the Aswan Dam. Moreover, we cannot withhold aid without threatening to undermine the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.  When Nasser and Mubarak, and other authoritarian rulers, make calculations on regime survival, foreign assistance may be a small consideration and a weak card in our hand.  I recall being at the U. S. embassy in Damascus in 1985 when the Congress cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Syria intending to force President Assad to change his policy, and it made no difference at all. He didn’t even blink.

Some people have criticized American diplomats for allegedly being out of touch with opposition groups in authoritarian countries like Egypt. That is probably unfair.  I served twice at the American embassy in Cairo, and both times my colleagues and I had extensive contacts with the opposition including the Muslim Brotherhood. I was regularly in touch with opponents of the regime, and once when the prime minister complained to my ambassador about that, the ambassador protected me, saying I was just doing my job. The embassy knew the regime’s critics very well, and we sympathized with some of their views, but there was not very much we could do to help them.

It is of course helpful for the United States to continue to make the case for democracy in public and in private diplomatic conversations.  It is useful for the U.S. government to support civic organizations, and to sponsor international exchanges of students and professionals. But I understand that the Obama administration has been doing so, and it is unrealistic to assume that we could have done much more to push the process along before the upheaval. In the end Mubarak listened to the Egyptian street and the army, and not to us.

President Obama has been criticized for not anticipating the Egyptian revolution.  But he certainly knew that there was plenty of unhappiness with Mubarak, and no one in Egypt or elsewhere anticipated that Mubarak would be overthrown.  The critics who fault Obama fail to say what he should have done before the revolution about the discontent.  When demonstrations broke out, there was a chance that it could spill over into an anti-American protests but Obama’s posture in fact helped prevent the US from becoming a target. During the Egyptian crisis, Obama faced pressures from different sides on what to say in public – including presumably urgent demands from Israel and Saudi Arabia that we back Mubarak very strongly – but in my view he got the public diplomacy about right.   Now that the situation has changed substantially in the Middle East, there are already more opportunities for Washington to make public statements about democracy and this should continue.

The Demonstration Effect

The Egyptian revolution had many causes. Some pundits are calling it the Twitter or Facebook revolution, but that is too simplistic.  Yes, those communication technologies, along with satellite television helped, but the uprising would not have happened without the Egyptians’ pent-up frustrations over joblessness, corruption, police brutality, repression of human rights and a lack of trust in the leadership that Egyptians have privately complained about for a long time. They had quietly endured the hardships, becoming resigned and apathetic rather than rebellious. Suddenly they rose up. One of the triggers was watching the unprecedented Tunisian developments on TV. What was remarkable this time was that the so-called “demonstration effect” that political scientists like to talk about, and we saw in Eastern Europe, actually worked in Egypt, because it so rarely has happened in the Middle East. The Iranian people overthrew the shah in 1979 and there was anticipation all over the Middle East that other Muslim autocrats would fall like dominoes, but that did not occur. When regime changes have taken place in the past in the Middle East, the neighborhood usually remained calm. We now have seen an exception in the Arab world.

But it does not necessarily mean that one upheaval will lead to the same thing elsewhere. Egypt following Tunisia was unusual. When copycat demonstrations broke out in Algeria, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Iran and then Libya, each one was motivated by a separate set of grievances, often longstanding, and unique to that country. The authoritarian rulers, paying close attention, took immediate steps to avoid becoming the next victim of an upheaval.  Yemen’s President Salih followed Mubarak by declaring he would not run for president again and neither would his son. Jordan’s king changed his cabinet. Kuwait and Bahrain handed out money. Poor countries have fewer tools for defense. Although anti-government demonstrations are taking place in several countries at this writing no one can predict the outcome. So far they have not toppled other regimes, which have kept ahead of the mob. Anger in most countries has focused on the top person but in Bahrain for example Prime Minister Khalifah is probably more vulnerable than the king because he has been hated for decades due to his corruption. King Hamad, like his father before him, has always been reluctant to fire his uncle Khalifah, but he may try to do so to save the monarchy.

Arabs remember that Mu’awia, the 7th century caliph, said that the secret of leadership is to lead the people by a thread, pulling them when you can but easing up when you must. Mubarak failed to do that.  Wael Ghonim, who was one of the organizers of the revolution in Egypt, credited his success to the stupidity of the regime. The other autocrats may be smarter. We will see how strong the demonstration effect is now.

Egypt’s Future

As for Egypt, it is too soon to predict the ultimate outcome of their revolution. I can only offer some guesses and hopes.

The army is in charge and martial law probably will continue until we have new elections. After that my guess is the army will not try to rule directly but revert to its role as the power behind the scenes. The generals care about the reputation of the army and their perks, not about actually running the government. If Egypt is lucky it will follow the Turkish model.

The secular political forces, long suppressed by Mubarak, will now emerge and try to compete in a fight for power. The leaders of the Wafd, Tagammu’ and al Ghad parties and the Muslim Brotherhood have been ready for years and they will be active. The institutional structures already exist: parliament, elections, political parties, newspapers and other mass media have been around for a long time, only stunted and controlled from the top through a complex web of laws and rules that made them impotent. There are also plenty of smart, highly educated, politically savvy Egyptian adults who have not been involved in politics but could emerge into leadership or supporting positions. There is the well-regarded Amr Mousa who was Mubarak’s foreign minister until he fell out of favor, and is now talking about running for president; Muhammad El Baradei who has an international reputation and a following; Nabil Fahmy who was ambassador to the US and is now at the American University; Nabil Elaraby, a lawyer who was formerly on the International Court; Ahmad Zewail, the Nobel Laureate. All of these men have excellent reputations and they all joined the protestors to demand Mubarak’s resignation. There are also plenty of smart lawyers who can help untangle the problems of writing a new constitution and new laws. There is no shortage of talent, and Egypt will find leaders if the system opens up.

Egypt is not likely to tear up the peace treaty with Israel or start a new war, after three decades of peace. A truly free parliament, representing the views of the public, will be more critical of Israel and of the United States, but it is unlikely that either relationship will be seriously damaged.

If the political process results in a democratically elected secular government, its greatest challenge will be in solving Egypt’s huge economic problems. Workers strikes that have taken place in the past are now erupting again and portend serious obstacles. Even the police are complaining, justifiably, about low wages. One of Mubarak’s last acts was to dismiss several technocrat ministers who since 2004 had done pretty well, helping Egypt to grow its GDP and attract foreign direct investment. Whoever follows them will be under great pressure to meet the public’s increased expectations.

Those are only guesses. The situation could take a bad turn for those Egyptians who bravely called for Mubarak to leave and stuck with it. But Egypt also might end up with some form of democracy, probably a bit messy but fairer than the system that has prevailed under Mubarak for decades. At least there is some hope that the political system is on the right path.End.

William A. Rugh
William A. Rugh

Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh who holds a Ph.D. in political science is the author of “Arab Mass Media” and many articles on Middle Eastern subjects, as well as two books on public diplomacy. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 30 years, and during that time he served at embassies in six Arab countries, including as American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95) and as Ambassador to Yemen (1984-87). During his career he held several public diplomacy positions, including Area Director for Near East and South Asia (1989-92), and PAO in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Between 1995 and 2003 he was President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization. He is currently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the board of directors of the Public Diplomacy Council.

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