The ebullience of a near-emancipated Egypt stands in revealing contrast to the hand-wringing in Washington over its implications. Only now, as it becomes not only possible but highly probable that President Hosni Mubarak may soon be exiled to his own Elba, are America’s diplomatic and security apparatchiks allowing for a Middle East without their most dependable Arab autocrat. How, they wonder aloud, will the US impose its authority on the region if its fighter and refueling jets are barred from Egyptian airspace and its warships are prohibited from entering the Suez Canal? What chances are there for Middle East peace should a new regime open its border with Gaza? What if the Muslim Brotherhood turns the Arab world’s most vital nation into an Islamic republic? “This is a big deal with huge potential consequences for U.S. strategic interests in a vital region,” Martin S. Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, breathlessly told The New York Times. “We’re in completely uncharted territory.”
True enough for the Yanks, though for previous imperial powers this is all well-worn terrain. In the early 1950s, the British and French were caught flat-footed by a barracks coup against their own Egyptian proxy, the voraciously corrupt, incompetent and rotund King Farouk. When Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the so-called “Free Officers” who brought down Farouk, emerged as president, among his first acts was to nationalize the Franco-British controlled Suez Canal. In response, London and Paris, with Israeli help, maneuvered to undermine Nassar and restore their authority by invading the canal zone. The 1956 Suez Crisis ended in ignominy for the conspirators when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower all but ordered them to withdraw, while Nasser’s credibility soared throughout the non-aligned world.
Just as London and Paris cursed Egyptian resistance to their hegemony – British Prime Minister Anthony Eden likened Nasser to Hitler, while British radio called him a “barking dictator” – American policymakers now dread the prospect of challenges to their own. Unlike Eden, however, who did little to hide his contempt for Third World upstarts, US leaders are now caught in the rip-tides of their own hypocrisy. Nowhere has America’s public embrace of human rights and self-determinism clashed as discordantly as they have in its quiet support for Hosni Mubarak, who famously cowed US officials into line with ominous talk of an Islamist revolution should he yield to any form of dissent. In late 2005, when Mubarak finally relented to President George W. Bush’s pressure for national elections, which despite gross occasions of fraud and voter intimidation resulted in a resounding triumph for the Muslim Brotherhood, Bush backed away from his “freedom agenda.” Since then, Mubarak’s despotism has only intensified.
For anyone who has followed Egypt’s political paroxysms over the last decade, the current reckoning comes as no surprise. While reporting in Egypt two years ago, opposition leaders assured me they would not tolerate another term of dictatorship. Analyst Osama Harb was most prescient. In the end, he said, Mubarak would be undone by his own legacy of corruption, malfeasance and the “miserable condition” of average Egyptians. There would be “general chaos,” he said, and “tanks in the streets.”
Predictably, such warnings were lost on the New Rome, where the imperial warrant is held in higher regard than the foreign unfortunates who stagger beneath it. Empire is the highest, and thus most pernicious, expression of militarization, and in Hosni Mubarak Washington enjoyed a most agreeable host. Like most of America’s post-Cold War partnerships, the relationship between the two parties had become an end in itself, a diplomatic compact Malthusian in its rate of diminishing returns. From a depleted US treasury, Cairo is showered with billions of dollars in subsidies to preserve its peace treaty with Israel, support of which is as much a strategic liability for America as it is for Egypt; it must concede its air and sea lanes to the Pentagon in Levantine wars of ruinous consequence; sustain an Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that achieves a mirage of deliberation but nothing of substance; and suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, the only Egyptian political party whose leaders regularly submit their authority to scheduled, transparent and democratic referendums.
If ever there was an unholy alliance in need of exorcism, this is it. Tonight, I hoist a glass given to me years ago by a waiter at Cairo Station’s main cafe (an art-deco jewel), in tribute to the legions of Egyptians who bravely reject the post-Ottoman Middle East and the western powers that usurped it.
Egypt for the Egyptians.