Anti-government protests in Egypt
, coming on the heels of those in Tunisia, have given rise to the question: Can President Hosni Mubarak be toppled
I would ask a different question: Should
he be toppled?
From our comfortable distance here the United States, it is easy to criticize his regime. Mubarak is far from a democrat -- conservatives can look no further than Egypt's discrimination against Coptic Christians
But this may be a case where the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know, or, as the saying goes, "He may be a bastard, but he's our
bastard." While there are hopes that a more egalitarian leader would emerge to replace him, that seems quixotic.
A look to the past is in order.
Mubarak became president only after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar El Sadat (Sadat was hated for making peace with Israel). Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had worked to overthrow Sadat, and was arrested following the assassination.
Zawahiri's ideological godfather was another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, who in many ways shaped the ideas that led to 9/11. Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood supported the unsuccessful coup attempt against Sadat's secular predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The point here is that radical Islamist ideology began in Egypt, and this has informed Mubarak's policies. As Zawahiri wrote in his memoir (according to Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower"
): "The River Nile runs in its narrow valley between two deserts that have no vegetation or water. Such a terrain made guerrilla warfare in Egypt impossible." Egypt has resisted Sharia law -- so far -- primarily because the terrain allows secular leaders like Mubarak to fend off Islamist insurgents -- unlike in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But make no mistake, Egypt was always the most desired goal for conquest.
Still, because of our noble desire to support international moves toward freedom, many Americans seem to be hoping for Mubarak's ouster. Were I guaranteed a better replacement, I would be among them. But I'm not so optimistic. It's also interesting to note that some of the folks who decried President Bush's "Wilsonian" foreign policy in Iraq would like to see Mubarak's ouster. Keep in mind, I'm not advocating a Kissinger-esque "realpolitik" position here for the sake of preserving the status quo -- my argument is that the Egyptian people may also be much worse off if Mubarak goes.
Even toppling regimes that were clearly anti-American -- from the Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- resulted in power vacuums and instability, giving rise to new problems that had been obscured by the heavy-handedness of the ousted regimes. The benefits of toppling an anti-American government may outweigh the costs, and so one naturally wonders about the cost of toppling an ostensibly pro-American one. Were Mubarak's regime an obvious American enemy, such as Iran's, rooting for a revolution would be a no-brainer. But in Egypt, things are a bit more complicated.