The Egyptian Riddle

Τετάρτη, 16 Φεβρουαρίου 2011 22:24
The situation in Egypt calls to mind Churchill’s famous 1939 description of Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma”. Some three weeks after the crowds began assembling in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the outside world is still mostly in the dark as to the true colors and intentions of the key players in the unfolding drama; and, as a result, attempting to predict the course events will take is a most hazardous exercise. What is clear, however, is that the stakes for the Western World in the land of the Nile are very high.
Thoughtful Westerners are of needs alarmed by the well documented aspirations of militant Islam and the inevitable machinations of great regional powers antagonistic to the West. And consequently they cannot but hope and pray that political change in Cairo does not: embolden the various strains of Islamic terrorism throughout the area; impede the flow of energy supplies; complicate Western efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan; and place in jeopardy the peace treaty with Israel – and with it the present relative peace in the region.
Of critical importance in this respect is the role of the Egyptian armed forces. Largely financed and trained by the Americans, they are, in principle, well disposed towards the US and the Western powers more generally; and adamantly opposed to religious extremism. And their hold on power seems not only to have survived the fall of Mubarak, but, in a way, to have been enhanced after the exit from the political scene of an erstwhile icon, which with the passage of time had become a liability for their public image. Yet, questions as to the real intentions of their leaders, and indeed of their unity of views and purpose, remain unanswered. While at least as significant are the uncertainties surrounding the relative strength and objectives of the disparate elements composing the opposition and, above all, of the inscrutable Muslim Brotherhood.
More likely than not, however, the Army will remain united and will manage to keep things under control – by preventing, in particular, a reenactment of the Iranian precedent; hopefully without recourse to violence. And, although it would be presumptuous to rule out Egypt’s evolving into a full-fledged, Western-type democracy, it is highly improbable that such a political miracle will take place in the near future; especially given the length of time and the tribulations it took for the – still very imperfect, in most cases – democratic institutions in the neighboring Balkans and Turkey to develop.
For the rest, when commenting on the “Egyptian revolution” one can hardly ignore Washington’s policies in the region. President Obama is currently in the crosshairs of a considerable number both of conservatives and of liberals; with the former accusing him of having abandoned a faithful friend in his time of need, and with the latter claiming he has not done enough to foster regime change, not only in Egypt, but in the rest of the Arab-Moslem world as well. These charges, however, are unjust.
The idea that American policy before the present crisis was fundamentally flawed is mistaken. For decades the Egyptian government, just as the Jordanian and Saudi monarchies, served the West well. And at the same time, carefully calibrated American pressures on these and similar other problematic regimes helped to curtail their excesses – less egregious, by the way, than those of anti-Western autocracies such as Iran or Syria. Would a more determined push for regime change throughout this region have resulted in its magical transformation into a democratic oasis and prevented the outbreak of the present crisis? It is more likely that such a policy would, on the contrary, have ushered into power anti-Western extremists lurking in the political shadows.
On the other hand, after the first few days of the Egyptian uprising, it became clear that nobody, Washington included, could save president Mubarak from himself. And nothing, it should be added, precludes similar developments at the expense of other Western alllies in the region. (Fortunately, the popular unrest is also hitting some of the most virulent foes of the West.)
Although still the only super power, America is not a miracle worker. Obama is right to tread lightly on very troubled and murky political waters: dealing with events as they arise; and engaging in delicate damage control, while hoping for the best.

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