Politics involves ideology – but it also involves the real world. Real decisions and real actions create real consequences. It’s complicated. And if history has taught us anything about international affairs, haste makes waste. Or as the proverb says, “Act in haste, repent in leisure…”
Egypt at a Crossroads
The whole world is watching Egypt’s meltdown – thanks to omnipresent digital and broadcast media. Prompted by Tunisia’s recent uprising that led to a change in government, demonstrators have been publicly protesting for days. Long-time Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has been besieged by calls from many of his people to step down. Mubarak has essentially replied, “not now, later.” However, this response only seems to fuel more protest.
Sadly, lives have been lost in the violence. But what is the right path forward?
Surprising Alert from a Christian Leader
Today, I read an article that concerns me. It’s an “urgent call” for President Obama to demand Mubarak’s immediate resignation. While the topic isn’t uncommon, I’m surprised by the source: The “God’s Politics” blog at Sojourners – a publication that advocates faith-based civil action. Although I respect Sojourners and its CEO, Rev. Jim Wallis, I’m deeply concerned about the tone and urgency of this alert.
Even President Obama has called for a swift transition to a democratic government. On the other hand, he has called for restraint and non-violence – on all sides. Meanwhile, American media seems fixated on showcasing the struggle in the streets, without doing much to explain the history, context and implications of these events.
What’s the Rush?
In my opinion, it’s in our best interest to support a slow, deliberate transition. Rushing to install a new government simply to appease heated protesters could produce a situation that’s worse than the status quo – for Egyptians, for the US, and for allies such as Israel. Why? Foremost, because we’re at risk of weakening worldwide efforts to neutralize radical Islamic terrorism.
Finding Perspective from the Past
Let’s take a peek at history. President Mubarak took power 30 years ago, after the sudden violent murder of President Anwar Sadat. Sadat was assassinated because he was bold enough to sign a peace treaty with Israel. And although Sadat paid for that treaty with his life, it helped stabilize the region. When Mubarak took power, he continued to enforce that peace agreement. And today, although Egypt and Israel aren’t considered “BFFs,” at least they aren’t at war, as they were in the 1960s.
Since taking power, Israel has granted autonomy to the Gaza Strip, and Egypt controls part of that border. After winning power in Gaza by popular election, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic political party, has fired rockets at Israel. Sometimes this has prompted open warfare (as recently as 2008). To help stave-off the flow of arms to Hamas, Egypt has kept the border of Gaza closed.
Mubarak’s Egypt Attracts Strange Bedfellows
As we’ve seen and heard recently, President Mubarak is unpopular with pro-democracy Egyptians. But more importantly, as a result of his policy in Gaza, he’s also unpopular with the Muslim Brotherhood – an ultraconservative, Egypt-based Muslim organization, dedicated to imposing strict Islamic fundamentalist Shariah Law. This isn’t my personal opinion – it’s actually the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated goal.
The Muslim Brotherhood dislikes Mubarak because he doesn’t support radical Islam. He has distanced himself from terrorists organizations – while the Muslim Brotherhood embraces these violent fundamentalists.
How does this translate into the “freedom fight” on the streets of Cairo? We need to be aware that Egypt’s demonstrators are not a unified whole. Rather it’s a mixed bag that includes both secular, pro-democracy advocates, as well as ultraconservative Muslims who would gladly unseat Mubarak and impose Shariah law if possible. The unintended consequences could be felt around the globe.
Another Reason to Proceed with Caution
There’s another important quandary for the US. We can’t abandon an ally today without losing credibility with other countries, and jeopardizing the potential of future alliances.
Mubarak and his government have long been aligned with the U.S. against terrorist organizations, both in Egypt and in other parts of the Middle East. (While I was in Afghanistan, I saw an Egyptian Army field hospital in Bagram Airbase.)
Imagine our President conversing with another head of state, being casually asked why we ushered Mubarak out of office, after he supported us for decades! Doing business that way is unlikely to earn us new friends – or help us retain the confidence of existing allies.
While I personally admire and support Egyptians who want to see true democracy in their country, I also think Mubarak is absolutely correct when he cautions against a too-swift transition in Egypt that leaves a potential power vacuum.
Lessons Learned from Iran
History has shown what a Middle East power vacuum can create. Remember the Shah of Iran? After he fled his country, the world watched as the Ayatollah Khomeini took control with an iron fist. Now Iran is almost as far from democracy as any country can be.
We can help this from happening in Egypt. We should emphasize restraint, and focus on helping the Egyptian people move peacefully from an autocratic government to a true democracy, where civil liberties and rule of law prevail. If we throw our support behind a chaotic drive to push Mubarak from office, the Muslim Brotherhood will be only too happy to fill the void. And sadly, those everyday Egyptians we hope to help could be left with a social, economic and cultural environment that’s far more bleak than today.
It has happened before – in the not-too-distant past. We can help prevent it from happening again. As the saying goes, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”
I pray that cooler heads prevail.
- Jim Wallis: Call on Obama: Tell Mubarak to Leave Now (huffingtonpost.com)
- Egyptians’ ‘Day of Departure’ Ends With Mubarak Still in Power (businessweek.com)
- International leaders back Egypt’s protesters (msnbc.msn.com)
- Obama: Egypt’s Future Will be ‘Determined by It’s People’ (abcnews.go.com)
- Egypt: Mubarak Won’t Budge Despite Protests (news.sky.com)
- US officials: Talks on Mubarak leaving immediately (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Party led by Iraqi PM praises Egyptian protesters – The Associated Press (news.google.com)
- Egypt: Demonstrations and political pressure, but Hosni Mubarak clings on (guardian.co.uk)