As Washington reviews its policy toward Cairo this weekend, officials should think hard about fostering a Mubarak-led transition rather than one led by protesters. Plus, full coverage of the uprising in Egypt.
Difficult as it may be, let's try for an honest and realistic discussion of Egypt. Of course, the Obama administration, most Americans, most Egyptians, and I myself would prefer a democratic government in Cairo instead of President Mubarak's corrupt and repressive establishment. That's not the issue. The real issue is this: If Mubarak tumbles and if Washington uses its influence—and yes, it does have influence at approximately $3 billion in annual total aid—to push him out, what kind of government will follow his? Will it be even less democratic and more repressive? And what will be the implications for U.S. security in the region?
Photos: Egypt Protests
So, let's stop prancing around and proclaiming our devotion to peace, "universal rights" and people power. Instead, let's step back and look hard at what we know and don't know about this popular explosion in the bosom of one of America's most vital allies—and what the United States can and can't do about it.
The devil we know is President Mubarak. In the history of Mideast bad guys, he's far from the worst. Remember Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomenei, President Ahmadinejad, President Assad of Syria, and the many and varied leaders of Muslim terrorist groups? No sensible American would excuse Mubarak's corrupt regime—a bureaucracy that would make Kafka blush, a nasty police force, and a repressive political system. Very bad, indeed. On the plus side, he's led Egypt's economy to 6 to 7 percent real growth in past years and has conducted a foreign policy highly supportive of U.S. interests.
Most seriously, he failed to institute gradual political and economic reforms. Consequently, his nation is in flames. U.S. administrations haven't been successful in the past when they tried to push Mubarak in this direction. But it stands to reason that he might now be more amenable to reforms and transitions as long as he is not humiliated.
Now, what about the devils we know less—like the protesters? Of course, there's a slew of journalists, pundits, policy experts and professors who say these aren't devils at all, just "the people": democrats, lawyers, and college-educated and moderate women. No doubt, many of the protesters fit that description. But the dutiful press has interviewed only, say, a few hundred of these good souls. Perhaps many are not so democratic. Perhaps many are Egyptian Tea Partiers who want every Egyptian to have Islamic guns like the Founding Pharaohs. Or perhaps many are just furious and poor and unknowledgeable. My guess is no one really knows a great deal about the protesters.
As for most of the other "devils," they are pretty well known. One leadership candidate, of course, is Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. chief nuclear inspector and a good man. But he has almost no constituency inside Egypt, where he's spent little time in recent years. The people aren't going to give him power, and he probably wouldn't know what to do with it anyway. But he could be part of a future government in an ideal world.
The other "devil," now being proclaimed as misunderstood Islamic democrats, is the Muslim Brotherhood, and they should give us great pause. Baloney and wishful thinking aside, the MB would be calamitous for U.S. security. What's more, their current defenders don't really argue that point, as much as they seem to dismiss it as not important or something we can live with. The MB supports Hamas and other terrorist groups, makes friendly noises to Iranian dictators and torturers, would be uncertain landlords of the critical Suez Canal, and opposes the Egyptian-Israeli agreement of 1979, widely regarded as the foundation of peace in the Mideast. Above all, the MB would endanger counterterrorism efforts in the region and worldwide. That is a very big deal.
It would be delusory to take the MB's democratic protestations at face value. Look at who their friends are—like Hamas.
As for the MB's domestic democratic credentials, let me show some restraint here. To begin with, no one really has any sound idea of how they might rule; they haven't gotten close enough to power to fully judge. But they'd be bad for non-orthodox Islamic women.
And while MB leaders profess support for democracy and free speech, my mother's response still holds: "They would say that, wouldn't they?" What I see is that they've quieted their usual inflammatory rhetoric in return for Mubarak not banning them. It would be delusory to take the MB's democratic protestations at face value. Look at who their friends are—like Hamas.
The real danger is that our experts, pundits and professors will talk the Arab and American worlds into believing we can all trust the MB. And that's dangerous because, outside of the government, the MB is the only organized political force, the only group capable of taking power. And if they do gain control, it's going to be almost impossible for the people to take it back. Just look at Iran.
For the record, I am not saying that Arabs or Muslims are incapable of democracy. I am most certainly saying that Arabs, Muslims, or anyone else would find it almost impossible to establish a stable democracy out of chaos and years of corruption and injustice.
The Egyptian Army is another power alternative. And it's possible they could provide a bridge to a future civilian democratic government in Cairo. All we know here is that they've kept their noses out of politics and are thought to be generally loyal to Mubarak. The United States could help persuade the parties—if asked to play that role by the military, Mubarak officials, and "the people."
Now, a final word about America's power in this situation. We haven't got any power to shape events. But that does not mean we are without influence. We have influence by virtue of the billions in aid we provide annually, by dint of years of positive contacts with the Egyptian government and business people, and the like. This means something. If the Obama administration leans to the protesters, that would embolden the protesters and demoralize Mubarak supporters. And mind you, those Americans screaming to support "the people" should understand that no matter how much President Obama sides with "the people," few of them will thank him or America for it. And our soothsayers should also understand that when our other Arab friends watch us help remove Mubarak from power by not backing him, they'll believe that they'll be next on the list if they run into trouble. U.S. power would crumble in the region.
In these circumstances, the least problematic of U.S. policies are as follows:
1. Call on all sides to restore order and stability—with as much restraint on government force as possible. Little or nothing can get done if the killings mount. Under present circumstances, Mubarak won't compromise, and if he did, "the people" would only demand more. And everything would fly out of control again. The Army is best positioned to do what's necessary here, including using minimum necessary force.
2. Shut up publicly as much as possible and use American influence privately to guide Mubarak toward a power transition "he could be proud of." He can't stay in office for long, but he can go in a way that befits a strong ally and allows for a legacy he can be proud of. (And by the way, the White House should also stop threatening publicly to cut off aid to his government. Make such points in private.)
3. Bring in Egyptian voices and others respected by them to speak truth to the people. Tell them it will take years to fix Egypt's mountain of problems. Urge them to say that the start would be a coalition government with Mubarak as president for as short a period as possible and no more than a year, followed by elections supervised by the United Nations.
After a daylong meeting on Saturday, the White House decided to lean in this direction—i.e., away from the protesters and toward Mubarak. But according to officials, Obama will not be saying so explicitly.
Our foremost fear should be an abrupt change of power or chaos that will benefit only extremists. Our foremost worry should be self-delusion.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.