The Need for Minds Over Hearts in the Egyptian Crisis

By February 3, 2011

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 126

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Supporting Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman in the current crisis will prevent a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt and avoid a bloody and protracted Egyptian civil war marked by foreign intervention. The West should support Suleiman and the military both for strategic reasons and out of concern for those demonstrators with democratic ideals who otherwise are likely to fall prey to a far worse fate than the regime they are attempting to overthrow.

Clearly, the hearts of most citizens in democratic states sided with the demonstrators during the peaceful demonstrations in Egypt. Many of these demonstrators not only expressed their sincere and moving aspirations for democratic change, enhancement of human freedom and citizen rights, but emphasized as well their desire to do so in peaceful fashion. Our emotions swayed their way even more in the wake of the violent attacks to which they were subjected, presumably by supporters of the incumbent Egyptian regime.

Sadly, while our hearts are with these demonstrators with democratic aspirations, our minds must not be. Reason must prevail over emotion for its own sake, let alone for the interests of most, if not all, democratic states.

Why reason and emotion clash in so many revolutionary situations has to do with the simple fact that the liberal and democratic demonstrators became prey to organized violent fanatic groups, ending up with a regime that trampled their rights to a far greater extent than the regime they strove to change. It happened in revolutionary France when Robespierre finished off the royalists and the liberals, in the Russian revolution when the fanatic, small but ruthless Bolshevik movement overcame the social democratic and liberal majority, and in the most telling precedent for Egypt, in the Iranian revolution when the demonstrations set off in the universities ended up being high-jacked by Khomeini, the fanatics amongst the Mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard.

How poignant the Iranian precedent is may be seen in the fate of Shapour Bakhtiar, the Sorbonne-trained liberal professor of political science who became the first Prime Minister of the new republic after the ouster of the Shah. Within one year he and many of his liberal successors, after providing the public mask to the real takeover of power by Khomeini and his supporters, were quickly discarded. Bakhtiar’s fate was especially severe. He was murdered by Islamic Iranian agents in 1991 after spending years in exile in France vainly trying to teach an unmindful West the bitter lessons he learned from his experience.

Egypt risks being one more lugubrious case of unorganized and peaceful democrats, conservatives and liberals being devoured by the more organized and fanatical Muslim Brotherhood. The 2005 elections, which were relatively credible if not free, strongly suggest this outcome. The Muslim Brotherhood candidates, running as independents, secured 88 seats. The other six opposition parties (of which only two could be considered really democratic) secured in total 16 seats, and 20 more seats were secured by those characterized as independent. If the regime fails to preserve institutional continuity, especially in the face of the chronic weakness of Egyptian opposition parties, some of which are nearly 30 years old, one can extrapolate that the Muslim Brotherhood will easily secure two-thirds of the seats in any future and free elections. How free then will Egypt be after the free elections?

A recent article in The New York Times wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood is neither very strong nor popular. The real issue is not absolute power when central power dissipates but the relative power between the Islamists and the liberal-minded number of demonstrators. The dice is clearly in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood on both counts. The Muslim Brotherhood will use Nobel Laureate Mohamed Baradei as the mask and then conveniently do away with him.

But the decimation of the democratic opposition is hardly the only implications of a potential Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt. Revolution in important states typically ends both in civil and external war or intervention. This sequence of terribly bloody events occurred in the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions. Again Egypt seems to be a good candidate for both.

The prospects for protracted civil war run high because the Egyptian military clearly knows what happened to the powerful Iranian military under the Islamists. Senior officers were murdered, the army was discredited and more than partially replaced by the Revolutionary Guards, not to speak of the loss of professional satisfaction of being trained and provisioned by the United States military. The officers who were spared purges or death later paid for the regime’s onslaught on them in the battlefields of the Iranian-Iraqi war when they came to the war demoralized, badly provisioned and with untrained troops. One can assume that the Egyptian military will not give in to a similar fate without a fight.

And in the coming civil war, the protagonists will readily find foreign actors to fund them. Iran, who just last year brutally subdued its own liberal and democratic demonstrators, has already announced that it will support the demonstrators, that is to say, the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a policy dovetails with their support of Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza with the same destabilizing effects on the Arab state order.

Ironically, the United States and the European Community, which criticize Mubarak now, will shower support in civil war to prevent an Iranian-sponsored state the size and importance of Egypt on the Mediterranean. One can safely assume that the defenseless Saudis are already supporting Mubarak. King Abdullah was the only one of two leaders (the other being Mahmud Abbas) who came out in personal support of Mubarak. He knows why. Egypt’s fall is the greatest boon for Shiite Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic itself.

So clearly minds over hearts must prevail. The United States and all democratic states should side with Mubarak’s newly appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman. President Obama dare not be another President Carter, the consequences of whose policies are being dearly paid for 30 years later. Supporting Suleiman now will prevent a Muslim Brotherhood takeover later, along with a bloody and protracted civil war marked by foreign intervention. The West should do this both for the strategic reasons discussed above, and out of concern for those demonstrators with democratic ideals who otherwise are likely to fall prey to a far worse fate than the regime they are attempting to overthrow.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Hillel Frisch
Prof. Hillel Frisch

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]