Why has Washington been so cautious in its support for the biggest popular revolution in the modern Arab world? The short answer is fear that a vacuum left by President Hosni Mubarak’s departure would be filled by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
“Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power,” warned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
As American leaders struggle to balance stability and reform in Egypt, history offers useful lessons. Many deem the closest historical parallel to be the Iranian revolution — with the clear implication that people power in the Middle East doesn’t produce liberal democracy, but dangerous theocracy.
But a more accurate precedent may be Pakistan, where Washington has stood firmly behind four military strongmen whose undemocratic rule has spanned half the nation’s history. The result? The rise of the world’s most virulent Islamic radicalism, dangerous nuclear proliferation, the hollowing out of civil society, chronic failures of governance, and the unrivalled dominance of the army over political life.
In Egypt and Pakistan, unaccountable leaders backed by their military establishments justified repression as vital to broader geopolitical goals that aligned with American interests. But did they? Mubarak always did just enough to sustain massive American aid while enjoying little more than a cold peace with Israel — and, in the process, delegitimized relations with Israel in the eyes of many Egyptians by virtue of his association with it.
From 2001 to 2008, Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan did just enough to sustain the heavy flow of U.S. arms and dollars by helping America in Afghanistan — while at the same time hedging his bets by supporting the Taliban, too.
In both countries, the partnership that autocrats offered America destabilized their countries and the wider international system.
Authoritarian rulers in Pakistan, as in Egypt, choked off the moderate, democratic and liberal elements of their society, radicalizing the opposition and channeling its dissent into violence. The heavy hand of these regimes helped spawn successive generations of global terrorists.
Look at the results in Pakistan today. Democratic elections following the end of military rule in 2008 produced a civilian administration friendly to the West and India. But foreign and defense policy are controlled by the armed forces. Elements of the military establishment continue to sponsor Afghan Taliban, Haqqani, and Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters with the blood of American soldiers and civilians on their hands.
So the parallels between Pakistan and Egypt are telling. Nonetheless, no two strongmen are alike. Pakistan has sometimes held free elections and has a robust civil society. This is in striking contrast to Egypt, where Mubarak made the free operation of civil society impossible. Emergency rule has been in place since 1981, prominent opposition parties are banned, the press was until days ago captive to the regime, and any gathering of more than five people without government permission was deemed to “threaten public order.”
Even so, the uprising in Egypt unites a broad spectrum of the population, from conservative Islamists to middle-class doctors and lawyers to Google executives to students in the Facebook generation. Fears of an Islamist “one man, one vote, one time” takeover seem overblown.
What of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose strength derives in part from its opposition to Mubarak’s rule and from the state’s persecution of its mainstream political opponents?
“Let them have a political party just like everyone else — they will not win more than 10 percent,” one Coptic Christian told the New York Times.
The long-term lessons are clear. America’s enduring strategic interests would be better served by siding with the Egyptian masses who seek freedom and dignity than with an authoritarian regime.
Daniel Twining is a senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He was previously on the State Department’s policy planning staff and a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain. These are his personal views, as published in The Weekly Standard.