From Nasser to Tahrir Square: The Story of U.S. Influence in Egypt

Lloyd Gardner's Road to Tahrir Square exposes how the U.S. empowered Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak with the "tools of repression" for the past 30 years and the extent to which American policymakers have shaped Egypt's destiny, including the very outcome of its historic revolution.

Gardner, a Rutgers University professor, traces the implications of U.S. policy in Egypt from the dawn of the Cold War to the outbreak of Arab Spring in just over 200 pages, while drawing enlightening historical parallels along the way. He illustrates how the U.S., since 1952, tried to persuade countries like Egypt to adhere to the strategic rubric of the day -- be it containment, détente, rollback or the war on terror.

It was the containment doctrine that drew the United States into the Middle East and Egypt became the strategy's cornerstone, as U.S. war planners envisioned more dominoes falling in the Arab world than in Southeast Asia. America's primary mode of operandi was to prop up dictators and monarchies against internal movements "touched" by communism. Congressman George McGovern in 1957 excoriated the Eisenhower doctrine by asking: "Do we build strength against communism by contributing American tax dollars to perpetuate this kind of feudal despotism?"

To be sure, the U.S. wasn't always successful, especially when dealing with the recalcitrant pan-Arab hero, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who adeptly played the Americans and the Soviets against one another while securing arms and funding from both. However, Nasser was also an opportunist with an ego, a trait the U.S. exploited by inveigling him to assist the CIA in toppling Iraq's nationalist government in 1963, which paved the way for Saddam Hussein. Gardner elaborates:

This alliance of convenience yielded a brutal dictatorship in Iraq and, eventually, two wars, in 1990 and 2003, at the end of which the United States and Egypt, now under Hosni Mubarak, traded compliments for loyal service in managing the affairs of the Middle East.

Gardner connects the dots and detects "a strong historical thread" stretching from the deal between the CIA and Nasser on Iraq to Mubarak's final days. This thread broke only once -- during the Six Days' War in 1967 - because the U.S. saw wars of national liberation anywhere as Soviet imperial behavior.

Anwar Sadat pivoted to the U.S. camp in the 1970s and embraced Western-style capitalism. He was assassinated by Islamists in 1981 for "selling out" to the West. In fact, Sadat's peace treaty with Israel united disparate extremist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and inspired the likes of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's current leader.

The ironic funeral of Sadat, the supposed leader of the Arab world, was attended by Henry Kissinger, three American presidents and Menachem Begin, while only one representative showed from a Muslim country -- the president of Sudan.

Mubarak took the reins after Sadat's death and the pivot became complete. He was more than willing to be an "imperial lackey", as Nasser was wont to say. The U.S. invested $50 billion dollars in the Mubarak regime from 1981 until 2011, which paid off handsomely because Mubarak kept the peace with Israel, suppressed the Brotherhood and was a staunch ally in the war on terror.

Mubarak responded to internal extremism with emergency law, torture, secret trials and semi-feudal economic policies which drove Egyptians into the arms of extremists. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood, which eventually renounced violence, recruited effectively and became a well-organized political machine. These efforts bore fruit just weeks ago when a Muslim Brother won the presidency via a free and fair election, although many argue the military still holds all the cards.

The Obama administration, for its part, stood by its dictator until the bitter end. On January 27, 2011, the second day of protests in Tahrir Sqaure, Vice President Joe Biden had the gall to defend Mubarak on a PBS newscast. Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator, Biden responded: "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with -- with Israel... I would not refer to him as a dictator." On February 11, 2011, Mubarak resigned.

America did not know how to reconcile its conflicting goals but it did know how to play hardball. Behind the scenes the U.S. leveraged its $1.5 billion annual aid package with the generals who essentially forced Mubarak out of office. One could argue that the U.S. made the final decision to extirpate the dictator and simply shifted power back into the hands of military chieftains.

Now, many fear the revolution was in vain because, although it got rid of a personality, it never uprooted the underlying operating principles and police state machinery which caused the ruin of Egyptian society in the first place.

In the wake of the Arab Spring America now sits in need of a new strategic paradigm. At the very least, in this post-Cold War era, the United States should consider reducing aid to inherently undemocratic regimes that consistently violate the values we incessantly like to espouse.