How to Deal with Egypt -- the West's Dilemma

The West fears that Mubarak's untimely demise, without a secure regime in his wake and a suitable figurehead at the helm, could inspire a politically more confident Muslim Brotherhood.
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Many Egyptians feel betrayed that the Obama administration, for one, has not moved fast enough to support the fledgling grassroots pro-democracy movement.

By calling for Mubarak's ouster, and persevering in the face of tear gas, water cannons, baton beatings, and a hail of Molotov petrol-bombs young Egyptian men and women say they are combating decades of one-party rule, brutal repression against civil liberties, iron-clad control of the media, and corrupt economic policies.

They want to be able to express themselves freely - both in mainstream media and online - without the specter of arrest, torture and imprisonment looming overhead. They see themselves as new fledgling democrats in a country that has known no real democracy.

But the protesters are not at loggerheads with Mubarak alone but with the entire system of governance, which has been buoyed by unremitting financial assistance from the US in the past three decades.

This is one aspect of why Western nations are increasingly facing a quandary in how they react to the protests and violent counter-protests in Egypt, much to the dismay of reformists in the Middle East and North Africa.

To the West, the Egyptian government led by Hosni Mubarak has been a stalwart ally in the so-called war on terror, has played a crucial role in stabilizing the region, and most importantly has been a vital partner both in sustaining the Egypt-Israeli Camp David Peace Treaty and acting as an Arab intermediary in the derivative Middle East Peace Process.

When Mubarak was sworn in as president days after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, the Middle East he inherited was in the throes of revolution and warfare, and the nascent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was only two years old.

Iran, which had two years earlier ousted the Shah by way of populist revolt, was in full-scale war with its ideological and historical nemesis Iraq.

Lebanon was still reeling from civil war and a brief Israeli invasion in 1978.

Israel had bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear power plant and annexed the Golan Heights in Syria.

Domestically, the Egyptian government was wrestling with a violent Islamist resurgence which manifested itself beginning with Sadat's assassination and came to a climax in the horrific massacre of tourists in Luxor in 1997.

The Reagan administration at the time bet that Mubarak, a former air force commander who participated in the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) War and was considered a national hero by Sadat, had enough military clout to keep the army on his side. As a relative unknown politically, Washington understood that he would be given room to maneuver before credible opposition rose to challenge him.

It also continued to provide Mubarak's government billions of dollars in aid, most of which was appropriated to the Egyptian military.

Mubarak capitalized on the emergency laws in effect after the Sadat assassination to thwart political opponents, stifle the media, and derail efforts for electoral pluralism.

These laws provided the security apparatus with sweeping powers to detain and interrogate dissidents without judicial oversight.

Mubarak weathered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the divisive fallout of the first Gulf War, the Second Intifada and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps Mubarak's regional importance from a Western perspective was best summed up in an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in June 2009.

"For the first time in the history of the conflict, the Arab states unanimously committed to full normalization and security for Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue," Mubarak writes.

Mubarak's commentary is a reminder to his detractors in the US and Europe that there remains a functioning Arab proposal for the Israelis to accept and that his diplomacy can bring warring sides to the table.

He stressed that Egypt under his leadership has for years led negotiations to secure an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and played a key role in Madrid, Oslo, the Wye River Accords, and Annapolis and in recent years a series of summits in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh.

It is this kind of diplomatic footing that the West wants to keep intact in Egypt at all costs.

The West fears that Mubarak's untimely demise, without a secure regime in his wake and a suitable figurehead at the helm, could inspire a politically more confident Muslim Brotherhood that is likely to ally with its ideological offspring Hamas and oppose US and Israeli policy regarding the Islamist movement.

The Brotherhood could theoretically reach out to Islamists in Sudan and Somalia and even overcome sectarian differences to form a united anti-Israel front with Iran.

This would isolate countries US bases along the Persian Gulf and threaten allies such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Pro-democracy activists, including former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, say this is fear-mongering and exaggerated. They say the Brotherhood will form one part of a pluralistic political future including many opposition parties.

Nevertheless, this is a nightmare scenario that the West would rather avoid.

But it remains difficult for Western nations which have called for democratic reforms in the Middle East to ignore the populist revolt unfolding in Cairo. With painful images of bloody street battles fed live through Al Jazeera and other networks, the West's approach becomes more untenable.

Enter current newly appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman, who as an experienced negotiator with Israelis and Palestinians already understands Washington's approach to the Middle East.

As I write this, Reuters has quoted a New York Times report that the Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials Mubarak's resignation. Suleiman would become an interim president, leading the country to elections in September.

This is unlikely to appease the pro-democracy protesters who want an overhaul of the entire system.

But Suleiman fits the bill of what the West is looking for - a military man who has connections within the Egyptian army, understands the Israeli-Palestinian equation, may make a few political concessions and knows how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.

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