The West gained little from supporting Mubarak’s dysfunctional rule

Posted: January 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

By Michael Binyon

Egypt was for some 40 years counted one of the great successes of American foreign policy. When, in 1972, President Sadat expelled the Soviet military presence from his country and transferred allegiance to the United States, it marked a huge shift in the balance of superpower rivalry.
Yet evidence published in The Times today indicates that America’s subsequent investment of faith and financial support in the Egyptian leadership was misguided. The regime that eventually fell in 2011 had not only failed to secure popular consent and economic success: it was dysfunctional and led by a man medically unfit to discharge political office. It is a salutary case of the limits of a foreign policy supposedly based on a hard-headed assessment of interests to the exclusion of ideals.
In a new book, Abdel Latif el-Menawy, the former head of Egyptian state television, depicts the last days of the Mubarak autocracy. To describe it as chaos would be misleading only in that it would imply at least a succession of random events. It was more a case of institutional paralysis born of incomprehension of the state of the country and a political culture incapable of absorbing criticism. No one dared tell Mr Mubarak that he had to resign. When eventually the Vice-President announced the resignation, the broadcast was delayed because Mr Mubarak’s wife, stricken with grief, refused to leave the presidential palace.
The broadcast descended into farce owing to the inclusion in the camera shot of a junior official who viewers would have assumed was instrumental in the change in government. In fact, he was there only because no one told him to get out of the way. Mr Mubarak cut a pathetic figure: a despised autocrat rendered, by age and severe depression, incapable of exercising considered judgement, let alone effective power.
This was the leader whom the West had treated as an essential ally in the Middle East since he succeeded to power after Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Even on a limited assessment of costs and benefits, the advantage to the US of supporting Sadat and Mr Mubarak was limited and the favours dispensed in the process were great.
The US came to Egypt’s aid in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Though Sadat had instigated the conflict, the Nixon Administration insisted that Israel halt its advance and agree to a ceasefire. Once Egypt had agreed a peace deal with Israel at Camp David in 1979, the US took on the role of Egypt’s patron, supplying aid and arms. Yet the US received little in return. And while Sadat’s decision to sign an accord was undoubtedly courageous, it was courage deployed to recover territory, not — as in Israel’s case — to give up land for peace.
Egypt under Mr Mubarak remained a closed and repressive society, which Western foreign policy neither sought to change nor greatly affected. The malevolent ideology of the Islamists perversely depicted Cairo as America’s supplicant. In reality, Mr Mubarak’s regime incubated theocratic fanaticism by ensuring that there was no outlet for dissent except through the mosque.
The consequences are evident in the halting progress of Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. The rights of minorities, such as the Coptic Christians, are threatened. Radical Islamist parties are burgeoning. Tolerating autocracy rather than pressing for democracy and defending human rights disinterestedly is a costly policy for the West. Its fruits are now being gathered.

(This article was first published at the Times )

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