01.31.11

Obama's Dangerous Game in Egypt

If Egypt’s revolution is successful, the U.S. will lose an influential ally, says Andrew Roberts—and if history is any guide Obama may wish Mubarak had remained in power. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt protests.

How would you feel if a friend and work colleague came to your house for dinner and a bed for the night, happily accepting your hospitality, and you learned afterward that even while he was doing so, he had been angling to get you sacked? “Betrayed” isn’t the start of it. Well, that’s how Hosni Mubarak has every right to be feeling about Barack Obama today, and one day before long it might well come to haunt the President of the United States.

For when President Obama visited what he called “the timeless city of Cairo” to give his famous speech of June 4, 2009, and went through all the diplomatic pleasantries and greetings with Mubarak, exchanging presents and so on, it turns out that his administration was actively undermining his host and ally. WikiLeaks has revealed that only three weeks before Obama’s inauguration, on December 30, 2008, Margaret Scobey, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, warned the State Department that opposition groups had drawn up secret plans for “regime change” before the September 2010 elections. The embassy’s source was an anti-Mubarak campaigner whom the State Department had helped to attend an activists’ summit in New York. This secret support for anti-Mubarak campaigners continued after the change of administrations, and up to the outbreak of the present attempted revolution.

Should Mubarak survive, he will understandably abhor American double-dealing in this matter, and the alliance between Egypt and the United States will hereafter be characterized by suspicion and deep distrust.

Should he fall, and his place be taken at any stage by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Republican narrative for the next presidential election will be obvious. Truman lost us China; Johnson lost us Vietnam; Carter lost us Iran, and now Obama has lost us Egypt. You can’t trust the Democrats in foreign policy. Argue over the historical minutiae if you like—was LBJ more or less to blame than JFK or Nixon, for example—but if Cairo goes Islamist the overall narrative will be compelling.

For if history bears witness to anything about mob-led uprisings it is this: Revolutions eat their children. It is too universal an historical phenomenon to ignore. As you consider the future of Mohamed ElBaradei in Egypt, remember that Oliver Cromwell took over the English Revolution, not John Pym who started it. Napoleon was heir to the French Revolution, not Abbé Sieyes, a serial writer of constitutions that were never adopted for long.

History shows how small, extremist, determined, and, above all, well-organized revolutionary cadres tend to succeed out of all proportion to their numbers against amorphous, well-meaning, middle-class liberals.

Lenin usurped the Russian revolution only eight months after Alexander Kerensky toppled the Czar. ElBaradei might well be fated to play the role in Egypt that was played by Shapour Bakhtiar in Iran or Bishop Abel Muzorewa in Zimbabwe, of the stopgap figure who is acceptable to the West but soon swept away by the far more extreme Khomeini and Mugabe, respectively. Timeless Cairo itself provides the example of Mohammed Naguib, who lasted only 17 months as president of Egypt after the revolution that toppled King Farouk, before being ousted and placed under house arrest for 18 years by Nasser. Those who unleash the tiger very rarely ride it for long.

In the Egyptian parliamentary elections of 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood managed to obtain 88 seats out of 444 (if one strips out the 64 seats reserved for women and the 10 for presidential appointees), and that was with every organ of the state—especially the police—working flat out against them. The December 2010 elections were simply too fraudulent to permit anything worthwhile to be made of them. The Brotherhood’s 30 percent showing in polls compares well, therefore, to both the Nazis’ and the Bolsheviks’ positions at this stage of the revolutionary cycle. The MB is hiding behind the secular, middle class anti-Mubarak revolutionaries who sound so articulate on TV right now, but it is aiming to bury them just as surely as the Bolsheviks did the Mensheviks and the Khomeini did Shapour Bakhtiar (in both cases, literally so). History shows how small, extremist, determined, and, above all, well-organized revolutionary cadres tend to succeed out of all proportion to their numbers against amorphous, well-meaning, middle-class liberals. That’s why Kerensky wound up teaching at Stanford rather than ruling in St. Petersburg.

During the 1848 revolution in Paris, a French politician was seen chasing after the mob as it marched on the royal palace, shouting as he ran: “I am their leader; I must follow them!” That ungainly stance is essentially the one that Obama is adopting today toward the Egyptian mob, which his pronouncements, critical of Mubarak’s admittedly corrupt and unreformed government, can only have encouraged. He will soon enough find that mob-led policies are not in America’s best interests any more than they are in Egypt’s, and that open, liberal, democratic and uncorrupt Arab governments in the Middle East are as rare as the black swan.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the U.K. in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.