It’s difficult to have any sympathy for Hosni Mubarak, or any other member of Egypt’s current ruling elite. Egypt has been ruled by a succession of authoritarian dictators since 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the Government in 1954, a dictatorship continued by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, in turn. One always hopes that a popular movement to overthrow a dictaror will be followed by a flowering of democracy, but, sadly, that rarely happens, historically, and is even less likely to happen if Mubarak is toppled.
In all probability what will follow Mubarak in Egypt will be a government run by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their allies. This means that Egypt’s most likely post-Mubarak government will be an Islamist, radical government, similar in many respects the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As Lawrence Wright points out in The Looming Tower, Mubarak’s jails have been an incubator for Islamist radicals. And why should we expect otherwise? The liberal, Western, Democratic states have been fairly supportive of Mubarak, and Sadat before him, ever since Sadat disavowed warfare as a method of destroying “the Zionist entity”, as Israel is generally known by the Arab states. Even among proponents of democratic reform inside Egypt, the support that the West has given Mubarak has made the West appear to be, at best, amoral, and, at worst, positively duplicitous. This has undercut the influence in the popular culture of Egyptian proponents of Western-style democracy.
As a result, it has been the Islamists who have seen their influence rise among the general population in recent years. Indeed, the Islamist influence on Egyptian culture is immediately noticeable by looking at the following pictures posted a year ago by Pajamas Media. The pictures are of the graduating classes of Cairo University in 1978 and 2004. Notice how the women are dressed.
The devolution from the modern era to a more conservative past is obvious.
The upshot of all this is that a post-Mubarak regime is likely to be undemocratic, Islamist, and hostile to the West in general, and the US–and, of course, Israel– in particular. With Egypt having such a large population and corresponding cultural influence on the rest of the Arab world, there is much reason to believe that that a post-Mubarak Egypt will be the cause of a significantly less stable, and more troublesome environment in the Middle East.
Our policy failures in Egypt have been bi-partisan, and made for ostensibly the best of reasons, but their results seem likely to be disturbing. Still, it’s difficult to see what other choices were available to us. Had we imposed too much pressure on the Mubarak regime to democratize, the end result would likely have been either a) much the same as we are facing now, or b) simply caused Mubarak to turn to China to replace the security and stabilization support provided by the West. Sadly, the policy options we faced were those presented by the real world, and not the idealized world we might wish for. Although, one notes, had we forced Mubarak into the arms of the Chinese, we might have more acceptable moral support to offer the proponents of Egyptian democracy at the present moment.
Now, we don’t even have that. The Egyptians are going to do whatever they’re going to do, and we have little choice but to sit by as passive observers.