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Will Egypt Go the Way of Iran?

The current U.S. administration is supporting Egypt in the same way that Iran under the shah was backed by the U.S. in the 1970s — as a regional power supposedly doing its bidding. U.S. administrations, unfortunately, have taken a dim view of internalizing historical lessons, and it may prove particularly perilous with the Obama administration.

The improbable fall of the shah, and his replacement by the radical, anti-American, messianic Islamic Republic led by ayatollahs, could very well occur in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak’s 28-year martial-law rule is similar to that of the shah’s, albeit the shah’s treatment of his people was somewhat more moderate. And the shah at least strove to build a middle class by fostering economic growth and expanding educational opportunities to average Iranians.

As with the shah, Mubarak is receiving some of the most sophisticated offensive arms in the U.S. arsenal. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, large quantities of F-16 fighter aircrafts, M1A1 heavy tanks, Apache helicopters, E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning spy planes, as well as an array of missiles including the Patriot missiles, shoulder-borne TOW and Stinger missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, air-to-surface and surface-to-surface Hellfire missiles, Maverick air-to-surface guided missiles, and cluster bombs have been delivered to Egypt by the U.S. (Most of these Israel receives as well.) Egypt receives about $2.1 billion annually courtesy of U.S. taxpayers (in 1990 the U.S. forgave $7.1 billion in past Egyptian military debt).

Egypt’s name, according to a report by the Federation of American Scientists, can be found on the CIA’s list of known proliferators, along with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

On the eve of the Iranian Islamic revolution, few pundits would have predicted the demise of the shah. The influx of rural workers to the cities, especially Tehran, along with the inability of educated young men and women to find suitable employment became a time bomb which Ayatollah Khomeini exploited. The Egyptian internal security forces are as brutal as the Iranian SAVAK, and Egypt’s exploding population (83 million at last count), high unemployment, low wages, rampant corruption, and nepotism (Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, is being groomed to succeed the 81-year-old Hosni Mubarak) makes Egypt like Iran in 1979 — ready for an explosion.

The Muslim Brotherhood, with its largest following in Egypt, is waiting in the wings — and it may yet proclaim Egypt as the next Islamic republic. Opposition to Mubarak’s arbitrary rule and the possibility of Gamal Mubarak’s succession is a prescription for a combustible political situation.

Mubarak’s visit to the White House last August demonstrated the Obama administration’s willful blindness to the Egyptian people’s frustration with the corruption and nepotism of the Mubarak dictatorship. The words “freedom,” “democracy,” and “reform” were not included in the Obama press conference held in the Oval Office. A December 2008 Gallup poll showed that 75% of the Egyptians surveyed answered “No” as to whether or not the U.S. was serious about establishing democratic systems in the Middle East region. These results indicate an increase of 12% in the distrust towards America by ordinary Egyptians.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has reduced funding for democracy promotion in Egypt from $50 million to $20 million this year. The State Department has agreed to Egyptian demands not to use economic aid to fund civil society organizations not approved by the government. As a result, U.S. funding for pro-democracy and human rights groups will drop by about 70%. At the same time, the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee inserted $260 million in additional security assistance for Egypt into a supplemental appropriations bill, along with $50 million for border security, without attaching any conditions on Egypt.

A relationship between countries is no different from an interpersonal relationship; there is always a reciprocal give and take. That is not the case between the U.S. and Egypt.

It is a one-way street, in which the U.S. gives and receives little in return from the Egyptian dictatorship. Aladdin Elaasar, in a Middle East Quarterly article, cited Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Jr. (former U.S. ambassador to Egypt) as criticizing the double-faced Egyptian policy:

[The policy] can be called having its cake and eating it too. … [The Mubarak regime] plays to its domestic audience through the media, officially sponsored clerics, and the educational system. The regime blames all its shortcomings on imperialism, Zionism, the West, and the United States and uses that to build domestic support.

While Mubarak “hails” Egyptian-American relations to American policymakers, his government promotes radical anti-American thinking through the educational system, the media, and the mosques. Egypt’s human rights record is abominable. It is a police state with no accountability, either to it’s citizens or the courts. Islamism is on the rise and women’s rights have declined. And with the Obama administration supporting the status quo in Egypt, the U.S. is essentially backing the Egyptian government’s suppression of human rights persecution — especially that of the Copts, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.

Egypt’s ambassador to Denmark, Mona Omar Attia, orchestrated the riots over the Danish cartoons in 2005 when the Danish prime minister refused to apologize for their publication. The ambassador, with a green light from Mubarak, organized international Muslim groups to take on this cause. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit then circulated a report about the cartoons, suggesting anti-Islamic action in Denmark. This further inflamed the Islamic world. It was a deliberate use of misinformation, which Gheit was aware of, and he manipulated it into an anti-Western crusade culminating in violent Islamic riots throughout the world.

The stakes of losing Egypt to a fundamentalist Muslim regime are high, and it would have a dramatic (if not catastrophic) impact on the stability of the region. The cold peace with Israel would be abrogated, and sophisticated U.S. weapons would once again be used against Americans and Israelis. Will Obama’s inaction set the stage for a debacle similar to Carter’s in Iran? History should guide Obama in avoiding Carter’s mistakes.

To prevent a revolution in Egypt, the U.S. must press Mubarak to lift martial law and to allow peaceful democratic and liberal parties (and not militant Islamic parties who would end the democratic process) to participate in elections and have their candidates run for the presidency. Instead of supplying Mubarak with offensive arms, the Obama administration must urge greater economic reforms in Egypt that would allow for entrepreneurial initiative, foreign investments, and economic growth that would accommodate the millions of unemployed young men — whose frustration may otherwise end up fostering another Islamic revolution.