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Toppling Egyptian President Mubarak: Careful What You Wish For

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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 for evidence.

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.

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February 01 2011 at 2:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt. We don't want them running Egypt, do we? I don't think so.

January 29 2011 at 9:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Eric The Red

How right you are. What makes foreighn policy so hard is that it rarely boils down to a choice of what is good or bad but what is bad and worse. In 1954 we destabilized the government of Mossadegh in Iran and he was replaced by the Shah which led to the present mess. In hindsight it is easy to criticize the Eisenhower administration but the context was the cold war and our paranoia about leftist regimes. That policy of containment was enunciated by Truman and was the bedrock of American policy until the fall of the Soviet Union. Now we have a complete Balkanization of almost every hot spot without any clearcut friends or enemies. I fell sorry for any President who is charged with making decisions regarding who to support or not to support. I wish this administration good luck and hopes it makes the right ones although I have no particular confidence that the President has the experience or personell to do so.

January 28 2011 at 10:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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