A Q&A with Author Lee Smith
Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations
, discusses the ongoing protests in Egypt--from the causes to the implications for Egypt, the Middle East, and the United States Q: What is happening on the streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities?
A: In the wake of the Tunisian uprising that brought down president-for-life Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptians took to the streets to protest against their own regime. While the protesters have numerous grievances—a need for higher pay, more jobs, cheaper food, more freedom of speech, a freer political system—their chief demand was for Hosni Mubarak to step down after ruling Egypt for nearly thirty years. Now that Mubarak has done so, it’s important to note that the end result is less a product of a democratic revolution than a military coup. Mubarak, a former air force pilot and a hero of Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, was the public face of the Egyptian army, which gets $1.3 billion in military aid annually from the United States (close to another billion goes to Egypt as financial aid.) Once the military decided it could no longer count on Mubarak to protect its interests, it took outright control of the country and compelled Mubarak to resign. Q: Why is Egypt’s military so important?
A: In spite of the trappings of a bicameral parliament, a judicial system and even a multiparty system, Egypt’s government is nothing but a military regime. Indeed throughout its many thousand years of history, the country has been ruled by military leaders more often than not—from Alexander the Great to Saladin up through Mohamed Ali, whose dynasty was finally overthrown in 1952 with the military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers to power. The Free Officers were a cadre of young military men headed by Nasser, and upon his death in 1970 a fellow Free Officer, Nasser’s vice president Anwar Sadat, succeeded him. Sadat’s 1981 assassination at the hands of Islamist militants brought Mubarak, a former air force commander, to power, thus ensuring the continued importance of the Egyptian military. Mubarak’s chosen successor, Omar Suleiman, is also a former military man and head of Egyptian intelligence; the newly named Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq also comes from the military, another former member of the air force. The strange irony is that even as the Egyptian military is among the country’s most highly respected institutions, respected even by the protesters, it is also deeply corrupt—its senior officers are handsomely rewarded to ensure their loyalty to the regime. Q: Why is Egypt important to the United States?
A: Egypt is the largest Arab state, with some 80 million inhabitants and climbing. Long the cultural, intellectual, and media capital of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, Cairo sets many of the region’s intellectual and cultural trends. This alone would be enough to make it an important Middle Eastern ally. But Egypt has also been a political leader. For three decades (from 1948 to 1973) it was on the front lines in the fight against Israel, but when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he took Egypt out of the war and calmed a region of vital national interest to the United States. The peace treaty is the cornerstone of what many refer to as the Pax Americana in the Eastern Mediterranean, and also the pillar of American influence in the entire Middle East. Q: Why was Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt a key American ally?
A: Until 9/11, Mubarak’s primary importance to Washington was that he kept the peace with Israel. However, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mubarak has been one of the U.S.’s chief, albeit quiet, allies in the war on terror. Mubarak himself fought what was effectively a civil war against domestic Islamist groups throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and accordingly shares an interest with the U.S. in quelling Islamist militants throughout the region. Q: Were all Egyptians opposed to Mubarak?
A: No, and many Egyptians actually opposed the protesters. Some Egyptians believe that the recent unrest was a foreign plot, initiated by the United States or Israel, to destabilize Egypt. The tourist industry—one of the country’s top revenue earners, with Egyptian employees numbering in the thousands, if not millions—has already taken a substantial hit. Some experts believe it will take years for it to recover. Indeed, unemployment is high in Egypt and many of those who do have jobs earn money on a per diem basis—from cab drivers to construction workers. Their livelihoods have obviously been hurt over the last two weeks. And even among those Egyptians who are happy that Mubarak has retired, there are many who would like to see life get back to normal so they can get back to earning a living. Q: What is Egypt’s relationship to its neighbor Israel?
A: Since Sadat signed the 1979 treaty with Israel, the peace between the two countries has been cold. While Israeli tourists visit Egypt—predominantly beachside resorts in the Sinai and to a lesser extent Cairo—Egyptians rarely make their way to Israel. There is a very strong security relationship between the two countries—both fear Hamas, the Palestinian outfit that the U.S. State Department labels a terrorist organization—as well as relatively strong diplomatic ties. It’s a cold peace, to be sure, but preferable to war. Q: Who is in the Egyptian opposition?
A: The opposition right now seems to be composed of the young political activists who initiated the protests, largely through social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. For a time, Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was also part of the opposition, but since he has very little support inside Egypt itself, he seems to have been passed over. The most organized part of the opposition, although probably not the largest, is the Muslim Brotherhood. Q: What is the Muslim Brotherhood?
A: Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization that has been consistently opposed to the country’s secular leadership, including Mubarak. In its earliest years, the Muslim Brotherhood used terror against its opponents, killing many including government ministers. After Nasser incarcerated thousands of its members in the 1950s and 1960s, and executed some of its leadership—like the famous writer Sayyid Qutb—the outfit publicly renounced violence. While the party is still officially illegal, today its members serve in Parliament, but not under the party’s name. Even as the Brotherhood has renounced violence, its critics inside and outside Egypt fear that an Egypt controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood would come to look something like Iran’s Islamic Republic, or fundamentalist Saudi Arabia; invariably a Brotherhood-governed Egypt would make good on its promise to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s history of anti-American rhetoric suggests that it would be hostile toward U.S. interests throughout the Middle East. Q: What is the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda?
A: As the oldest and most influential Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood can rightly be said to be the progenitor of Al Qaeda. The difference of course is that it has renounced violence while Al Qaeda is an armed organization. Moreover, there are a number of ideological differences between the two groups as they compete for support in their activities; yet they both share hostility toward the American presence in the Middle East, and enmity toward Washington’s chief regional ally, Israel. Q: Is Egypt ready for democracy?
A: While the Egyptian uprising has often been described as prodemocratic, the evidence is mixed. (Among other things, no liberal or democratic leaders have stepped up in the last two weeks.) Egypt has a long tradition of liberal intellectuals and activists, dating back to the nineteenth century. However, in the last half century or so that democratic current has largely been thwarted, partly through the efforts of Egypt’s rulers—from Nasser to Mubarak—and those of the Islamists. There are still liberal intellectuals and activists in Egypt, but they have very small popular constituencies right now, and hence very little power. Perhaps the uprising will give rise to liberal centers of power in Egypt’s political system, but it is still too early to tell.
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