Thus the prophet Mohammed, having encountered Jews fasting to commemorate the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, marked what would be the Day of Ashura on the Muslim calendar. The liberation of modern Egypt from thirty years of despotism is its own Exodus, the power and significance of which will not be fully appreciated for a generation. Nor is it at all clear where the journey will take a people who have known nothing but the whip hand of pharaohs, caliphs, kings, imperial occupiers and, most recently, a secular tyrant. One thing is obvious, however, though it has been drowned out by the euphoric din that radiates from Tharir Square across the Arab world: the manner, as much as the fact, of Hosni Mubarak’s departure will hasten the long recessional of American influence and authority, particularly in the Middle East. The by-now irredeemable gap between the reality of the region and the one concocted in Washington leaves little room for imagination and daring, as revealed by the cautious and equivocating way in which President Obama handled his end of the crisis. By conflating the Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda, for example, America has all but relieved itself of any credibility it may have once enjoyed among the Arabs. Brandishing the Zionist cudgel, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this week urged “the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists” in the transfer of power in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Fortunately, the capacity of Ros-Lehtinen to shape Middle Eastern affairs is as limited as her comprehension of them. But she and functionaries like her can frustrate US attempts to engage the Middle East on its own terms, a radical approach suited to revolutionary times. Appealing for a transition gradual enough to allow secular political groups to compete with the more muscular Muslim Brotherhood, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared as parochial political elites throwing rocks at a passing train.
The failure of Washington to anticipate Egypt’s upheaval is symptomatic of its gradual estrangement from the world it presumes to lead. So as not to antagonize Mubarak, the State Department after 9/11 segregated its diplomats from opposition groups, in particular the well-connected Brotherhood, effectively neutralizing its eyes and ears. The Pentagon, which enjoys strong ties to its Egyptian counterpart through officer-exchange programs that date back three decades, apparently produced little in the way of useful information about a looming succession crisis. Nor, for that matter, did the CIA.
Here was an intelligence shortage of epic proportions. For years, Egypt’s opposition leaders, intellectuals, and journalists had been warning anyone who would listen about the mortal absurdity of Mubarak’s vow to die in office even as he was grooming his son to succeed him, a prospect emphatically rejected by both the military and civil society. What did reach Washington, according to the trove of US diplomatic cables released in January by Wikileaks, was the message that the military would willingly guarantee a dynastic transfer of power. A July 2009 cable, based on an interview with an Egyptian politician, assures Foggy Bottom that a smooth transition is likely. “There would be some violence around the upcoming 2010 parliamentary and 2011 presidential elections,”according to the cable, “but…security forces would be able to keep it under control.”
The cable continues: “Widespread politically-motivated unrest was not likely because it was not part of the ’Egyptian mentality’. Threats to daily survival, not politics, were the only thing to bring Egyptians to the streets en masse.”
By ruling out relations with legitimate political movements abroad in reaction to political pressure at home, America denies itself the reference points needed to navigate competently through an unpredictable and often hazardous world. Rather than light a candle to illuminate the path before it, Washington curses the darkness of inconvenient facts. So when the dawn rose over Egypt to reveal a new age, America was nowhere to be found.