American relations with the Arab world have been strained for decades; Israel’s relations with the Arab world barely exist. But the Arab world itself is not all of a piece. The outright enemies of Israel and the West–preeminently, Syria and Iran–are political totalitarians, using the terrorist proxies of Hamas and Hizballah to engage in or threaten open war against not only their publicly defined adversaries but everybody around them. Most of their victims, indeed, are themselves Syrians and Iranians, followed by Lebanese and Palestinians.
Egypt is different, and has been different since the death in 1970 of the nationalist hero-tyrant Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Anwar Sadat took the helm from his predecessor, Cairo’s government de-radicalized itself to a degree—much as China’s did after the death of Mao, even though neither one underwent a formal regime change. Ruled for decades by the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak, a military man, today Egypt is governed by a military junta–the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Throughout this post-Nasser period, and again like the modern Chinese Communist party, the establishment has not only tolerated but promoted a certain amount of ideological diversity–limited, but miles away from the norm in the region’s worst regimes and movements. This policy has undoubtedly helped save Egypt from either reverting to full-blown despotism or smashing itself up in yet another doomed-to-lose war against Israel.
Among the beneficiaries of the regime’s tolerance is Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. This government-sponsored think tank has managed, incredibly, to remain somewhat independent of the state it purportedly serves. Unlike the Al Ahram newspaper, with which it shares office space, the institute is no government tool. How has it preserved its autonomy? “Mubarak was corrupt and authoritarian,” Soltan explained when I asked, “but he was not Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, or Muammar Qaddafi.”
I could vouch for this. I had been to Mubarak’s Egypt, Qaddafi’s Libya, Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein finished wrecking the place, and Lebanon while the Assad family waged a terrorist war in Beirut against the elected government there. Egypt under Mubarak was hardly a free country, but it certainly wasn’t totalitarian. For the most part, if people stayed out of the state’s way, the state left them alone.
Still, why issue paychecks to scholars who spend every working day writing and publishing thoughtful essays that regularly cut against the grain of government policy? The center, Soltan told me, was established in 1968 “after we lost the war with Israel. The rationale behind it was to create a place where we could analyze our reasons for failure. The government needed a second opinion, and it needed people who could think freely. A few think tanks were created around town for this purpose, and this is the one that survived.” The ground rules, moreover, have remained clear from the beginning: “We can conduct our research and publish it, but we can’t mobilize activists. We are allowed to say what we want as long as we don’t oversay it, or act on it.”
Soltan’s political views line up, more or less, with those of other Egyptian liberals whether inside or outside the establishment. He wants the army to loosen its grip and hold free elections. He distrusts the Muslim Brotherhood. He doesn’t much care for Israel, but he has no interest in terminating the peace treaty or gratuitously antagonizing Jerusalem. As for the activists in Tahrir Square, he finds them immature, naïve, and emotional. In short: a political liberal with the temperament of a conservative.