The Devil We Know
By ROSS DOUTHAT
As the world ponders the fate of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak, Americans should ponder this: It’s quite possible that if Mubarak had not ruled Egypt as a dictator for the last 30 years, the World Trade Center would still be standing.
This is true even though Mubarak’s regime has been a steadfast U.S. ally, a partner in our counterterrorism efforts and a foe of Islamic radicalism. Or, more aptly, it’s true because his regime has been all of these things.
In “The Looming Tower,” his history of Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright raises the possibility that “America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt.” By visiting imprisonment, torture and exile upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak foreclosed any possibility of an Islamic revolution in his own country. But he also helped radicalize and internationalize his country’s Islamists, pushing men like Ayman Al-Zawahiri — Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, and arguably the real brains behind Al Qaeda — out of Egyptian politics and into the global jihad.
At the same time, Mubarak’s relationship with Washington has offered constant vindication for the jihadi worldview. Under his rule, Egypt received more American dollars than any country besides Israel. For many young Egyptians, restless amid political and economic stagnation, it’s been a short leap from hating their dictator to hating his patrons in the United States. One of the men who made this leap was an architecture student named Mohamed Atta, who was at the cockpit when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center.
These sound like good reasons to welcome Mubarak’s potential overthrow, and the end to America’s decades-long entanglement with his drab, repressive regime. Unfortunately, Middle Eastern politics is never quite that easy. The United States supported Mubarak for so long because of two interrelated fears: the fear of another Khomeini and the fear of another Nasser. Both anxieties remain entirely legitimate today.
The first fear everyone understands, because we’re still living with the religious tyranny that Ayatollah Khomeini established in Iran in 1979, in the wake of a spontaneous revolution not unlike the one currently sweeping Cairo and Alexandria.
The second fear is less immediately resonant, because Gamal Abdel Nasser is now 40 years in the grave. But the last time a popular revolution in the land of the pharaohs overthrew a corrupt regime, the year was 1952, Nasser was the beneficiary — and Washington lived to rue the day he came to power.
Nasser was not an Islamist: he was a secular pan-Arabist socialist, which in the 1950s seemed to put him on history’s cutting edge. But under his influence, Egypt became an aggressively destabilizing force in Middle Eastern politics. His dream of a unified Arab world helped inspire convulsions and coups from Lebanon to Iraq. He fought two wars with Israel, and intervened disastrously in Yemen. His army was accused of using poison gas in that conflict, a grim foreshadowing of Saddam Hussein’s domestic tactics. And his pursuit of ballistic missiles was a kind of dress rehearsal for today’s Iranian nuclear brinkmanship — complete with a covert Israeli campaign to undermine his weapons programs.
The memory of Nasser is a reminder that even if post-Mubarak Egypt doesn’t descend into religious dictatorship, it’s still likely to lurch in a more anti-American direction. The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire. But then again they might be worse. There are devils behind every door.
Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.
But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.
Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.
The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.