The ghost of Egypt's greatest statesman, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, hangs over the mass demonstrations and strikes that have been going on for three weeks. The regime of Mubarak is a geriatric version of the "young officers' revolt" of the 1950s, which, even in Nasser's day, had become old, tired and incapable of change.
It is imperative that President Obama recognize the link between past and present, as well as the sterility of Egyptian politics as run by the security services. With Mubarak digging in behind the grim threats of Omar Suleiman, it is time for the White House to get tough.
Colonel Nasser came to power in 1952. He was an American protégé, part of the CIA's Project Fat Fucker, which successfully deposed King Farouk and installed a "transitional government" of young officers -- captains, majors and colonels -- who were expected to modernize, democratize and lead Egypt into the modern age. The State Department in 1952 spoke hopefully of an "Egyptian renaissance" under Nasser.
But Nasser disappointed, as Sadat did later, and Mubarak is now. Nasser did undertake land reform and other social programs like schools and clinics for the poor, but he spent the bulk of his energy constructing a bureaucratized security state, crushing out political parties, and assuring Washington that there were no other options in view of Egypt's social problems and unreadiness for democracy.
Sadat's controversial peace with Israel in 1979 was pitched to Egyptians as part of a plan for infitah -- opening -- to the West and the global economy. Billions of dollars a year in direct American assistance as well as the "peace dividend" that would accrue from a ceasefire with Israel seemed to hold the promise of overdue economic development. Instead, foreign aid and investment were skimmed off by government insiders. Connected Egyptians made fortunes importing foreign products that accelerated inflation inside Egypt and depressed the standard of living of unconnected Egyptians. Nasser's Emergency Law of 1958 -- upheld by Mubarak today -- has been the veil behind which "parasite capitalism" succeeds.
Generals and government ministers sell state-owned land, banks, companies and other assets for kickbacks, and cash cows like governorships and media advertising departments are auctioned like ancien regime venal offices. (When Sadat was president, Egyptians joked that he received an urgent phone call from his wife one day during a cabinet meeting. "What is it?" the president asked. "Anwar," she cried, "thieves have broken into our house." "Impossible," Sadat replied, "I'm sitting here with all the thieves.") Today, protesters in Tahrir Square have noted the age of the regime: they are not the fathers of the people in the streets; they are the grandfathers, who have been running this profitable racket for decades. "Nasser taught us to live on goat cheese," Egyptians say. "Sadat taught us to cheat, and Mubarak hasn't taught us anything."
Another Egyptian joke has it that Nasser and Sadat didn't get around to choosing vice presidents till they had found men "dumber than themselves": Sadat and Mubarak respectively. The punchline, until this month, was that "Mubarak has not yet found someone dumber than himself." Omar Suleiman is the new vice president, and he is smarter than Mubarak and determined to manipulate Washington's "orderly transition" to the benefit of the old guard. Either the establishment will reinvent itself along the lines of Putin's Russia or Iliescu's Romania, or more billions will be squirreled away offshore.
Noting Nasser's complicity in corruption in the 1950s and the way it paralyzed efforts to reform Egypt, Churchill said: "One of the disadvantages of dictatorship is that the dictator is often dictated to by others." Today, Mubarak is being dictated to by Suleiman and other cronies. It's time for Washington to demand an end to this charade and use the levers of diplomacy and military and economic assistance to get results. Mubarak and Suleiman must admit competent, critical outsiders to the transition regime for transparency, credibility and action. Here is a golden opportunity for Washington to seize the high ground in the Middle East and stake out a credible position for struggles with adversaries like Tehran and al-Qaeda, but also equivocal friends, like Saudi Arabia, who will benefit from the example and stimulus of Egyptian democracy.
Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the General Olinto Mark Barsanti Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East, due out in paperback from Penguin Books in April 2011.