from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Who Lost Egypt?

June 26, 2012

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In a very interesting column entitled "Who Lost Egypt?" in today’s Wall Street Journal, my friend Bret Stephens proposes three answers: "the Egyptians, obviously;" the Obama and Bush administrations; and "liberal abdicators." The article is well worth reading.

But it errs in overlooking someone who should be at the top of the list, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, after all, ruled Egypt for 30 years. During all that period he warned against the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood take-over, yet somehow he managed to deliver Egypt to exactly that fate. How did that happen?

Many books will be written about this, but it should not escape notice that Mubarak--who became president only because he was Anwar Sadat’s vice president when the latter was assassinated--never appointed a vice president. Even as he aged, reaching 82 at the time of his removal from power, Mubarak refused. In the early years it was thought that perhaps he feared that a vice president would be a rival for power, even a plotter against him. But later, the obvious explanation was that he wanted his son Gamal to succeed him. This may or may not have been true, and my own view is that Mubarak was no enthusiast for that outcome. I believe he understood that as a private businessman Gamal would likely have a long, wealthy life, while as president he might face disaster, sedition, overthrow, even assassination. The rumor mills of Cairo have long supplied diplomats with the view that it was Mubarak’s wife Suzanne who most strongly favored Gamal’s rise to the presidency and who stopped Mubarak from selecting a vice president.

Ironically, the man who might and in a certain sense should have been that vice president was Ahmed Shafik--the very man who just lost the presidential election in an extremely close race. Shafik was a Mubarak protege, a former Air Force general who had proved highly competent as a cabinet minister. The logic was clear: he could be trusted to protect Mubarak and his family if and when Mubarak had to leave power, or protect the family after Mubarak’s death in office. The appointment of a vice president such as Shafik would have put paid to the story that Gamal would rule Egypt after his father, giving the country not 30 years of Mubaraks but perhaps 60--and thereby contributing to the uprising that cost Mubarak his power and has left him and his two sons in prison. The revolt of last year might have looked very different had there been a vice president who could constitutionally take over, and the Muslim Brotherhood victory might well have been avoided.

During his 30 years in power Mubarak did not, obviously, crush the Brotherhood. This is partly to his credit, in the sense that he did not organize murder after murder on the model of the Assads of Syria. But neither did he allow the Brotherhood’s rivals and opponents to organize, for that would have meant opening the political system and allowing a bit of democracy: freedom of speech and press and assembly, the organization of new political parties, and free elections. In the Mubarak dictatorship, the Brotherhood was repressed but thrived in the mosques and social organizations it established, while Egypt’s nascent liberal, secular, and constitutional groups were crushed. They must now start almost from scratch in building a political opposition to the Brotherhood.

Mubarak believed that he was the only bulwark between the Brotherhood and Egypt, but in truth he was the enabler, the transmission belt that moved the Brotherhood to power while eliminating its "natural" enemies. The Bush administration came to understand this, but we did not act strongly enough on our perception except in 2004-2006. Mubarak was sufficiently offended by the pressures for democratic reforms to refuse to visit Washington in the Bush administration’s second term. But a late focus on efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement led to casting Mubarak as an indispensable figure and to a reduction in pressure on him for reform, an error then repeated by the Obama administration. The scene in September 2010, when he was invited to Washington for the opening of Israeli-Palestinian talks (which broke down almost as soon as they began) and feted as a great leader, showed everyone that there was no Obama "freedom agenda" when it came to Egypt. It was the old business as usual, with an aging Mubarak refusing any real reform and allowing the Brotherhood to grow while he made sure that its potential political opponents could not.

Many others will add to Bret Stephens’s list of "who lost Egypt," but Hosni Mubarak must be at the top.