April 26, 2011 update: looks like I was right about the likelihood that Egypt’s stance on Israel will change radically as the will of the people is felt over time.
I’m going to try and keep this short and to the point, but it’s a complex and messy analysis. Try and get to the bottom if you start, or you’re going to wind up thinking I’m a fascist.
- The architecture of middle east politics comes from centuries of colonial wars. The cold war equilibrium which bred Mubarak ended a generation ago and the kids protesting today do not remember its logic.
- Egypt’s population is very young.
- Israel is the only nuclear power in the region, and Egypt has cooperated closely to contain Gaza.
- Mubarak’s regime has not been unusually bloody for dictatorships – secret police viciousness, but no death camps. Poverty, but low crime rates. A stable society in the face of considerable internal pressures from fundamentalists, and complex international issues around the Suez canal and Gaza.
- There are two basic questions in play here
- Does a dictatorship survive in Egypt, or do they become a democracy?
- If they become a democracy, how much of a role does radical Islam have?
Everybody is rooting for a democracy without a substantial radical Islamist presence. This is likely a fantasy. Radical Islamist factions will at the very least own one end of the political discourse, and the ongoing human rights situation in Gaza will not be ignored by a democracy of any stripe – ordinary Egyptians will likely not tolerate Mubarak’s heartless stance on Gaza.
- The implication is, therefore, that what is happening in Egypt is going to destabilize Israel to some degree regardless of what happens unless a dictatorship remains in power. Even a benign Egyptian democratic government will speak with the authority of a democracy, and Israel’s shaky discrimination-ridden democratic stance only looks plausible when surrounded by dictatorships.
Follow the nukes. Work back your analysis of an international political situation to the nuclear powers involved, and then backtrack. All real political authority still radiates out from nuclear weapons. Soft power applies to people you aren’t willing to nuke.
So in all of this, the most important question is “What do the Israelis think?”
The current status quo in Egypt has served Israel well. A renewed dictatorship in Egypt will likely continue to protect their interests as a simple matter of statecraft. A democratic outcome will likely put renewed pressure on Israel over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and if radical Islamist thought comes to the fore in Egyptian political dialogue, never mind wins some elections, the Israelis are going to get very, very uncomfortable.
And here we have two stark options
- A radical Islamist democratic Egypt hopes to threaten Israel in future, waiting for weakness, or
- A secular, moderate democratic Egypt puts diplomatic pressure on Israel over years
So at this point, I think we have three conclusions.
- The risks of a democratic destabilization of the middle east are huge – consider the possibility of years of escalating Pan-Arabist political rhetoric, followed by a “Six Day War” type insanity, followed a sudden and horrific nuclear escalation, for instance. Egyptian elections are going to be won-and-lost on the strength of one’s stance against Israel, either military or diplomatic.
- Therefore risk-averse parties with intelligence services (yep, that’s everybody) will be piling in to try and keep Mubarak in power because, bad as he might be, he’s a lot more predictable than the entirely-electable Egyptian version George Bush would be (yes, people, democracy works both ways.) This is not reassuring.
- In conclusion, regardless of who comes out on top of this mess, the critical relationship is not between the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people, but between the Egyptian government and the Israeli government. They could very easily get a democracy which changes tack in a direction which leads to war in the middle east, and then we’ll long for the security of Mubarak.
As you know, my job is to look to the downside, to really feel out where the major risks to human life lie. Right now, the big risk in the middle east is the Israeli military, and much as Mubarak is/was a dictator, he’s steered Egypt clear of that threat for generations.
I can only hope that Egypt continues to enjoy such wise governance. Is it possible for a democracy to ignore the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, right on their doorstep? If not, what levers will they have which will not escalate the middle east again? Whoever winds up in charge of Egypt has to contend with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the Israeli nuclear stockpile, and these factors are not unrelated.
The football is not democracy or human rights in Egypt- it’s the million person prison camp called Gaza sitting on the Egyptian border.
Can Egypt’s future rulers continue to ignore Gaza? Can the Israelis tolerate Egyptian diplomatic pressure or escalating rhetoric on Gaza?
Hold your breath and pray for peace.