Libya, the United States, and the Anti-Gaddafi Revolt

Since the 1969 coup that overthrew the unpopular pro-Western monarchy of King Idris, Libya has been ruled by Col. Muammar Gaddafi (also spelled Qaddafi, Gadhafi, Khaddafi and other transliterations). Though long considered emotionally unstable, he was also considered politically stable, destined to maintain his iron grip on the country until he died a natural death. Now, even as he unleashes extreme and sometimes lethal violence against the growing pro-democracy uprising, his own days may be numbered.

As outlined below, the uprising comes despite decades of US hostility toward Gaddafi, which paradoxically strengthened the regime and arguably contributed to its longevity. It also comes despite the fact that, compared with the recent successful civil insurrections against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the challenges faced by the pro-democracy forces in Libya have been far greater.

Libya’s Unlikely Revolt

Under the recently overthrown dictators, the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes routinely rigged elections and marginalized opposition parties, but at least those parties existed. Not in Libya. Egypt and Tunisia had trade unions, popular organizations and active civil society groups whose activities were severely restricted and, at times, brutally suppressed, but at least they existed. Again, not in Libya. Furthermore, regional and tribal identity has always been much stronger in Libya than in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s situation is also distinct because, while urban areas have been the base of most of Egypt and Tunisia’s modern political leaders and movements – including the recent uprisings (and most pro-democracy civil insurrections in the world in recent decades) – rural forces have historically dominated politics in Libya.

Libya is an artificial creation consisting of what were three distinct regions – Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan – pulled together by the United Nations following the end of World War II and the defeat of fascist Italy, the colonial power. It is probably no coincidence that the city of Benghazi, located in the east, has been the center of the resistance to Gaddafi, who comes from the western part of the country. However, dramatic urbanization of Libyan society over the past half century and the resulting intermingling and intermarriage has substantially reduced regionalism and all indications are that the resistance is – like in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere – a genuine pro-democracy movement with strong support throughout the country.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the ongoing revolt in Libya and the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is the level of violence inflicted by the regime against the pro-democracy movement. As of this writing, probably more than one thousand Libyans – virtually all supporters of the pro-democracy struggle – have been killed, and the death toll will likely rise considerably before it is over. Part of the reason, of course, can be attributed to the ruthlessness of Gaddafi himself. There is little question, however, that the recently deposed dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak would have been equally willing to use such force to stay in power. Indeed, more than 300 Egyptian protesters and 200 Tunisians were killed in their respective pro-democracy revolutions. One reason there wasn’t greater bloodshed in those uprisings was that the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries were dependent on Western democracies (primarily France and the US, respectively) for security assistance and other strategic cooperation. Public opinion in Europe and North America would have demanded cutting such ties in the event of large-scale massacres, and many in the military leadership were unwilling to lose that relationship. Similarly, influential sectors of the government, intelligentsia and business class did not want to risk international isolation. By contrast, the Libyan elites have been largely isolated in the international community for most of Gaddafi’s reign, so they have little to lose.

Another reason for the high level of violence has to do with the nature of the resistance.

The resistance movements in Tunisia and Egypt, despite the absence of strong leadership, did engage in tactical coordination and at least some strategic thinking in their successful uprisings against their respective dictators, including a clear commitment to nonviolence. There was some rioting by a minority of protesters in the early phases of the uprisings (and the small minority of protesters who did riot constituted the majority of people killed), but – more significantly – there were virtually no shootings or other lethal attacks by pro-democracy elements against regime supporters, despite violence inflicted against them by security forces. By contrast, the protests in Libya have largely been spontaneous and – while the protesters have been primarily nonviolent and overwhelmingly unarmed – there have also been pitched battles between pro-government forces and civilians who have armed themselves with captured weapons, supported by members of the police and military who have joined the resistance.

Despite all this, Gaddafi’s regime appears to be crumbling. Virtually all of the cities in the eastern half of the country and a number of cities elsewhere have been liberated by pro-democracy forces. There have been defections of cabinet members, ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers. Pilots have deliberately crashed their planes, flown into exile or otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers have defected or refused to fire on crowds, forcing Gaddafi to rely on African mercenaries, which has only further angered the population against a dictator willing to bring in foreigners to murder his own citizens.

The biggest question, then, is not whether Gaddafi will be ousted, but how many of his fellow Libyans he is willing to bring down with him.

Gaddafi Versus the United States

Upon seizing power nearly 42 years ago, Gaddafi nationalized Libya’s foreign-controlled oil industry and ordered the closure of the Wheelus Air Base, one of the largest US facilities in the world. Despite this antagonism, Gaddafi’s anti-Communism allowed for some initial, cautious optimism from the United States about the new regime, but diplomatic relations were downgraded in 1973 and were formally broken eight years later.

Under Gaddafi’s rule, Libya made impressive, if uneven, gains in health care, education, housing, the rights of women and basic social services. His brand of Islamic socialism, combined with the country’s relatively small population and large oil reserves, made Libya one of the more prosperous and egalitarian societies in the Middle East, even though the promise generally outpaced actual performance. Though he was a classic strongman in one sense, Gaddafi also allowed for a relatively decentralized political system which allowed for direct democracy and popular participation in some limited political spheres.

However, political repression has always been widespread. As with the monarchy that preceded it, Libyan law has prohibited the formation of political parties and criticism of the political system. The regime prevented the establishment of independent human rights organizations or nongovernmental organizations of any kind, and the press was strictly controlled by the government. For most of Gaddafi’s rule, there were hundreds of political prisoners, and torture in detention has been common. Outspoken opponents of the government were murdered both at home and abroad.

Given that the US has long supported similarly repressive regimes in the Middle East, such repression was never a major concern of the eight US administrations that have governed since Gaddafi seized power. More problematic for the United States was Gaddafi’s outspoken advocacy of radical Arab and other “third world” causes and his support for extremist movements abroad, including terrorist groups, some of which were responsible for the deaths of American citizens.

During the early 1980’s, there was a series of military clashes between the United States and Libya, during which Libya attacked US navy ships and US forces destroyed Libyan military ships and aircraft and bombed coastal military installations. The Reagan administration supported a wide range of covert activities targeting Libya, including disinformation campaigns, propaganda, sabotage and support for opposition groups. The US also provided logistical support for French military operations against Libyan forces in the disputed Ouzou Strip region of northern Chad. The US goaded Mubarak, seen as a friendlier dictator, to confront Libya, resulting in a series of clashes along the Egyptian-Libyan border.

In 1982, the United States initiated a series of sanctions against Libya, including an embargo on Libyan oil and a new requirement for export licenses for most American goods. Comprehensive sanctions were imposed in 1986, including a freeze of Libyan assets and a ban of all trade and financial dealings with the country. These sanctions – which were not lifted until 2004 – also forbade Americans, including journalists and academics, from traveling to Libya without permission from the US government. (One reason for the conflicting analyses of the ongoing struggle is that, due to nearly a quarter century during which Americans were effectively prevented from even visiting Libya, there is a dearth of US scholars and journalists familiar with the country.)

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the US government issued a series of reports, widely circulated in the media, designed to discredit and demonize the Libyan government. These reports included charges of a Libyan hit squad targeting American officials, of coup attempts against Gaddafi and of the presence of a large underground chemical weapons factory. Subsequent investigations found all of these reports were false.

Indeed, prior to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi was the Middle Eastern leader Americans most loved to hate. Reagan, for example, referred to him as the “mad dog of the Middle East.” Demonizing the eccentric Gaddafi, with his penchant for harsh and provocative rhetoric, proved useful for bolstering the domestic standing of successive US presidents and in feeding the sense of self-righteousness Americans feel for the US’s role in the world, but that same demonization may have also strengthened the Libyan dictator. Since, at that time, US-backed terrorists in Central America were killing far more civilians than were Libyan-backed terrorists, and the United States was supporting repressive Central American dictators with even worse human rights records than Gaddafi’s, there were also serious questions as to whether the United States had any moral standing in its crusade against the Libyan dictator. In certain respects, these hyperbolic and hypocritical attacks on Gaddafi created a kind of “crying wolf” effect, making it easier for some critics of US imperialism to downplay his repression, foreign intervention, support for terrorism and general thuggery.

In April 1986, following a terrorist bombing in Berlin that killed an American serviceman, the United States bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s two largest cities, killing up to two dozen civilians, including Gaddafi’s daughter. The attack was widely condemned as a violation of international law, which recognizes the legitimacy of the use of military force only in self-defense from an armed attack, not for retaliation. The civilian casualties from the air strikes and the serious damage caused to the French embassy and other diplomatic facilities provoked outrage throughout the world and bolstered Gaddafi’s standing both at home and abroad.

The US justified the air strikes on the grounds that it would prevent future Libyan sponsored terrorism. Instead, it had the opposite effect: two years later, in retaliation for the bombing, Libyan agents blew up a US airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

When Gaddafi refused to hand over for trial in Britain two Libyan agents indicted for the terrorist attack, the United States successfully pushed the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions against Libya to force the government to hand over the suspects, an unprecedented action for an extradition dispute. (Ironically, during this period, and to this day, the United States has refused to extradite a number of right-wing Cuban exiles indicted on terrorist charges in several Latin American countries, including those responsible for blowing up an airliner.) These international sanctions prohibited the export of petroleum, military or aviation equipment to Libya, banned commercial flights to or from Libya, limited Libyan diplomatic representation abroad and placed restrictions on certain Libyan financial activities. When Libya eventually turned over the suspects for trial in 1999, UN sanctions against the country were suspended, though US sanctions remained in place for another five years.

In 2003, following prolonged negotiations with the United States and Great Britain, Libya announced that it was giving up its nascent biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs and accepting international assistance and verification of its disarmament efforts. In return, the United States ended its sanctions and restored diplomatic relations the following year. The successful elimination of the threat of Libyan weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should have been recognized as a triumph of patient diplomacy. However, in June 2004, a large bipartisan majority in the US House of Representatives passed a resolution claiming that the elimination of Libya’s nuclear program “would not have been possible if not for… the liberation of Iraq by United States and Coalition Forces.” In reality, the chief US negotiator, Flynt Leverett, writing in the New York Times, noted that Libya had approached the United States about eliminating its WMD programs well prior to the invasion of Iraq and the negotiations were successful because incentives, rather than just threats, were used for this successful nonproliferation effort. Indeed, given that Iraq had disarmed and was invaded anyway, the Iraq war could hardly be seen as an incentive for Libya to give up a potential deterrent.

What Now?

Even prior to the protests that were launched a few weeks ago following the Tunisian uprising, there were signs that Gaddafi’s rule was beginning to slip.

Gaddafi’s leadership style has always been repressive, impulsive, unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary. Yet his nationalism, anti-imperialism and professed socialism led many educated Libyans who formed the backbone of the government to stay loyal despite their misgivings, in large part in reaction to what was seen as the punitive and hypocritical sanctions imposed by Western nations and the constant threat of renewed US air and missile strikes against the country. It was only when the sanctions and threats of war subsided that there began to be a dramatic increase in resignations and self-imposed exile by prominent Libyans who had been members and supporters of the government. In short, the US-led efforts to isolate, punish and threaten the regime likely contributed to Gaddafi’s longevity as dictator. Once relations were normalized and the isolation and threats subsided, Gaddafi was seen less as the strong leader defending his nation against Western imperialism and more as the mercurial and brutal tyrant that he is.

The crimes committed over the years by Gaddafi’s Libya, while frequently exaggerated and not always unique, were and are still very real. Similarly, the double standards used to rationalize foreign policy are certainly not an unusual phenomenon in US diplomatic history, or in the foreign policies of any great power. Indeed, in recent decades, the United States has ignored killings of many thousands of unarmed opponents by such allied regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia and Iraq, among others. Libya’s most serious offenses, in the eyes of US policymakers, have not been in the areas of human rights, terrorism, nuclear ambitions, subversion or conquest, but in daring to challenge American hegemony in the Middle East. Serving as an impediment to such American ambitions gives these regimes credibility and legitimacy they would not otherwise receive from large numbers of Middle Eastern peoples resentful of such foreign domination, thereby strengthening these regimes’ rule at home, as well as their influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Given this history, it is important that – despite the ongoing atrocities – the United States and other Western nations resist the temptation to intervene in ways that could provoke a nationalist reaction that could play into Gaddafi’s hands. It is no accident that Gaddafi chose as the backdrop to his bizarre and frighteningly belligerent speech on February 22 a building in Tripoli destroyed in the 1986 US bombing.

And this history of US intervention in Libya pre-dates the Gaddafi era – by 130 years, under President Thomas Jefferson, who sent Lt. Stephen Decatur to attack the base of the Barbary Pirates, later referenced in the opening line of the Marine Hymn: “to the shores of Tripoli.”

It is therefore important for the United States – as long as it continues to back other autocratic regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and other countries currently suppressing pro-democracy activists – to avoid appearing too sanctimonious in its denunciation of the Libyan regime and its support for the uprising. Some humanitarian and carefully targeted capacity-building assistance could be appropriate if done in conjunction with a broad consensus of the international community and with close consultation with pro-democracy forces. However, given the history of the United States in relations to Gaddafi’s Libya, the best thing the United States could do to support the pro-democracy movement is to avoid any unilateral actions that a dangerous and unstable dictator could use to his advantage.

Gaddafi joined the Libyan armed forces as a young man, not because of an interest in a military career per se, but because he wanted to become the country’s ruler. In the Middle East in those days, if you weren’t part of a royal family, the key to political power was through the military. What Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated, however, is that political power ultimately comes from the acquiescence of the people. And if people no longer recognize their leader’s authority and refuse to obey their leader’s orders, that person will no longer be the leader. This is the kind of power the United States and other Western nations must recognize. For democracy to come to the Middle East, it must come from the people themselves.

Lessons and Signs of Hope Amidst the Carnage in Libya

The civil insurrection in Libya has been far more violent, and forces loyal to the dictator far more violent still, than the recent successful unarmed revolutions against the dictatorships in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Still, there are signs of hope and important lessons to be learned in the ongoing struggle against the 42-year regime of Muammar Gaddafi, whose days appear to be numbered.

Gaddafi’s leadership style has always been repressive, impulsive, and unpredictable. Yet his nationalism, anti-imperialism, and professed socialism led many educated Libyans who formed the backbone of the government to stay loyal despite their misgivings, in large part in reaction to what was seen as punitive and hypocritical sanctions imposed by Western nations and the constant threat of renewed U.S. air and missile strikes against the country, as took place back in the 1980s. It was only when the sanctions and the threats of war subsided back in 2004 that there began to be a dramatic increase in resignations and defections by prominent Libyans who had been members and supporters of the government. In short, the U.S.-led efforts to isolate, punish, and threaten the regime likely contributed to Gaddafi’s longevity as dictator. Once relations were normalized and the isolation and threats subsided, Gaddafi was seen less as a strong leader defending his nation against Western imperialism and more as the mercurial and brutal tyrant that he is.

As of this writing, virtually all of the cities in the eastern half of the country and a number of cities elsewhere have been liberated by pro-democracy forces, which launched their rebellion just a few weeks ago and are now clashing with security forces in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. In these liberated cities, popular democratic committees have been set up to serve as interim local governments. For example, Benghazi—a city of over a million people—is now being run by a improvised organizing committee of judges, lawyers, and other professionals who have been largely successful at restoring order to the country’s second largest city, dispatching young people to coordinate traffic at intersections and assist in other basic services.

There have been resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Gaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals, and top military officers, many of whom have actively joined the opposition. Pilots have deliberately crashed their planes, flown into exile, or otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers have defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution. This has forced Gaddafi to rely on African mercenaries, which has only further angered the population against a dictator willing to bring in foreigners to murder his own citizens.

These serious challenges to Gaddafi’s power comes despite the fact that, compared with the recent successful civil insurrections against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the challenges faced by the pro-democracy forces in Libya have been far greater. Under the recently-overthrown dictators, the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes routinely rigged elections and marginalized opposition parties, but at least there were elections and opposition parties. Not in Libya, however. Similarly, Egypt and Tunisia had trade unions, popular organizations, and active civil society groups whose activities were severely restricted and at times brutally suppressed, but at least they existed. Again, not in Libya.

Despite all this, pro-democracy forces are on the offensive, demonstrating that if enough people are willing to risk everything for their freedom, the regime has few options left but brute force—exactly what Gaddafi has been turning to. However, the use of such extraordinary violence usually ends up backfiring in favor of the opposition, which is exactly what appears to be happening in Libya.

Gaddafi joined the Libyan armed forces as a young man, not because of an interest in a military career per se, but because he wanted to become the country’s ruler. In the Middle East in those days, if you weren’t part of a royal family, the key to political power was through the military. What Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated, however—along with other successful nonviolent civil insurrections from the Philippines to Poland and from Chile to Serbia—is that political power ultimately comes from the acquiescence of the people. And if a people no longer recognize the leader’s authority and refuse to obey the leader’s orders, he will no longer be the leader. This is the kind of power the United States and other Western nations must recognize: for democracy to come to the Middle East, it must come from the people themselves.

Credit the Egyptian People for the Egyptian Revolution

While there will undoubtedly have to be additional popular struggle in Egypt to ensure that the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak leads to real democracy, the ouster of the dictator is by any measure a major triumph for the Egyptian people and yet another example of the power of nonviolent action. Indeed, Egypt joins such diverse countries as the Philippines, Poland, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Nepal, Serbia, Bolivia, Indonesia, and others whose authoritarian regimes were replaced by democratic governance as a result of such unarmed civil insurrections.

Unfortunately, there are already those who are trying to put the credit (or blame) for the Egyptian Revolution on anybody but the literally millions of ordinary Egyptians – men and women, Christian and Muslim, young and old, workers and intellectuals, poor and middle class, secular and religious – who faced down the truncheons, tear gas, water cannons, bullets and goon squads for their freedom.

It was not the military that was responsible for Mubarak’s downfall. While some top Army officers belatedly eased Mubarak aside on February 11, it was more of a coup de grace and than a coup d’état. It was clear to the military brass, watching the popular reaction following his nonresignation speech the previous day, who recognized that if they did not ease him out, they would be taken down with him. The Army’s refusal to engage in a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Tahrir Square came not because the generals were on the protesters’ side – indeed, they had long been the bedrock of Mubarak’s regime – but because they could not trust their own soldiers, disproportionately from the poor and disenfranchised sectors of society, to obey orders to fire on their own people.

It was not the United States, long the primary foreign backer of the Mubarak regime. The Obama administration played catch-up for most of the 18-day uprising, initially calling only for reforms within the regime. To Obama’s credit, he did push for an end to attacks on protesters and the shutting down of the Internet, and reportedly threatened a cutoff of military aid and strategic cooperation if US weapons were used in a massacre or other major repression. Though Obama eventually called for a speedy transition to democracy, however, he never explicitly called on Mubarak to step down. His strongest and most eloquent words in support for the pro-democracy struggle came only after Mubarak’s departure, giving a sense that it came more from a desire to not be on the wrong side of history than his desire to play the role as a catalyst.

Some US Embassy staffers had sporadic contacts with pro-democracy activists in recent years and, through such Congressionally-funded foundations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), there was some limited financial assistance to a number of civil society organizations. This small amount of US “democracy” assistance did not include any support for training in strategic nonviolent action or other kinds of grassroots mobilization that proved decisive in the struggle, and the key groups that organized the protests resisted US funding on principle. In any case, the amount of US funding for NED and related programs in Egypt paled in comparison with the billions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance to the Mubarak regime and the close and regular interaction among US officials and leading Egyptian political and military leaders. In addition, most of this limited “pro-democracy” funding was eliminated altogether a couple of years ago, following Obama’s inauguration.

Nor was it the Internet. Social media helped expose the abuses of the regime and get around censorship prior to the uprising and, during the revolt, at times helped with tactical coordination for the protests. It is important to note, however, that less than 15 percent of the Egyptian population had access to the Internet (mostly through cafes heavily policed by the regime) and, for a number of key days early in the struggle, it was shut down completely. (Ironically, it may have helped the movement in some cases, as a number of residents in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities decided to come out onto the streets to see what was happening first hand since they could not learn from the Internet.) While, on balance, the Internet was certainly helpful, it was probably not necessary for the movement’s success. The Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and other successful pro-democracy civil insurrections in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa took place without access to Internet technology. In Mali – an impoverished landlocked West African nation – word of the eventually victorious 1991 pro-democracy struggle against the Traore dictatorship was spread through griots, the traditionally singing storytellers, who would wander from village to village. When a people are committed to a struggle, they will find ways to communicate.

And neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian revolutions were a result of WikiLeaks. While the leaked cables exposed how US diplomats were well aware of the corruption and repression of the respective regimes and their propensity to deliberately exaggerate the influence of radical Islamists among the opposition, such malfeasance by their governments was certainly nothing new to the citizens of those countries.

It certainly wasn’t the Islamists. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had been playing more the role of informal loyal opposition to the Mubarak regime in recent years. They refused to endorse the initial protests until the last minute and then only half-heartedly. Not only did their higher level of support as the movement later took off smack of opportunism, the conservative Brotherhood and its aging leadership had been increasingly seen by the young secular activists who spearheaded the movement as being almost as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the regime. The chants, signs, and other outward manifestations of the protesters were decidedly secular with liberal democratic and leftist themes.

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Nor was the successful, large-scale application of nonviolent tactics that succeeded in bringing down the dictator a result of assistance or training by outsiders. There were a couple of seminars organized by Egyptian pro-democracy groups which brought in veterans of popular unarmed insurrections in Serbia, South Africa, Palestine, and other countries along with some Western academics who have studied the phenomenon, but these seminars focused on generic information about the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action, not on how to overthrow Mubarak. Neither the foreign speakers nor their affiliated institutions provided any training, advice, money, or anything tangible to the small number of Egyptian activists that attended. As one of the academics who lectured at one of these seminars, I can vouch that the Egyptians present were already very knowledgeable and sophisticated in terms of strategic thinking about their struggle. None of us foreigners can take credit for what later transpired.

Nor was it a spontaneous reaction to the Tunisian Revolution, which had emerged victorious in its largely nonviolent uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship two weeks earlier. While the unarmed insurrection in Tunisia certainly inspired and empowered many Egyptians who had long been sunk in fear, cynicism and apathy, the Egyptian revolution had been a long time coming. There had been a dramatic growth in Egyptian civil society during the preceding years, with an increasing number of labor strikes and small, but ever-larger, demonstrations led by such youthful, secular pro-democracy groups as Kefaya (meaning “Enough!”) and the April 6 Movement (named after a nationwide strike and protest on that date in 2008.) Increasing government repression, worsening economic conditions and parliamentary elections this past November that were even more transparently fraudulent than most, led many of us to suspect that it was only a matter of time before Mubarak would be ousted in a popular uprising. Indeed, my visits to Egypt and meetings with pro-democracy activists led me to predict in an article posted in early December that “Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.” (Little did I know the Tunisians would beat them to it.)

It is, therefore, critical, particularly for those of us in the United States and other Western countries, not to deny agency to an Arab people who had the courage and smarts to organize and fight their own nonviolent revolution.

Indeed, this revolution strikes a blow to the two extremes in the nearly decade-long battle between Islamist extremists and US imperialists. Al-Qaeda’s first attack against US interests was in 1995 against a residential compound in Riyadh used by US soldiers responsible for training the Saudi National Guard, the branch of the Saudi military used primarily for internal repression. The line put forward by Osama bin Laden and like-minded self-styled jihadists has long been that US-backed dictatorships can only be defeated through terrorism and adherence to a reactionary and chauvinistic interpretation of Islam. On the other extreme, the line put forward by American neoconservatives and their supporters has long been that democracy could only come to the Middle East through US military intervention, as with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The people of Egypt and Tunisia have powerfully demonstrated that both of these violent militaristic ideologies are wrong.

These are hardly the first countries to have seen dictators overthrown through nonviolent action. Its power has even been acknowledged even by such groups as Freedom House, a Washington-based organization with close ties to the foreign policy establishment. Its 2005 study observed that, of the nearly 70 countries that had made the transition from dictatorship to varying degrees of democracy in the previous 30 years, only a small minority did so through armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods. In addition, the study noted that countries where nonviolent, civil resistance movements played a major role tend to have freer and more stable democratic systems.

A different study, published in 2007 in the journal International Security, used an expanded database and analyzed 323 major insurrections in support of self-determination and democratic rule since 1900. It found that violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent rate of success.

From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing military dictatorships; from across the cultural, geographic and ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized the power of nonviolent action to free them from oppression. This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence, but simply because it works.

As noted in such books as “Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East,” there is a long history of nonviolent resistance in the Middle East, including Egypt’s 1919 independence struggle against the British. Iran has a long history of such uprisings, including the Tobacco Strike of the 1890s, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the aborted Green Revolution of 2009. Palestine has witnessed the general strike of the 1930s, the first intifada in the late 1980 and more recent campaigns against the separation wall and settlement expansion in the West Bank. In Sudan, unarmed insurrections ousted military dictatorships in both 1964 and 1985 (though the democratic governments that followed were eventually overthrown in military coups.) The 2006 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon ended years of Syrian domination of that country. There has also been an ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign in the nation of Western Sahara against the illegal Moroccan occupation. And, in recent weeks, pro-democracy protests have broken out in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria, Iran, and other countries.

This rich history, mostly dramatically played out on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities in recent weeks, demonstrates a critical point: Democracy will not come to the Middle East through foreign intervention, sanctimonious statements from Washington, voluntary reforms by autocrats, or armed struggle by a self-selected vanguard. It will only come through the power of massive non-cooperation with illegitimate authority and the strategic application of nonviolent action by Middle Eastern peoples themselves.

Mubarak’s Ouster: Good for Egypt, Good for Israel

The inspiring triumph of the Egyptian people in the nonviolent overthrow of the hated dictator Hosni Mubarak is a real triumph of the human spirit. While there will likely be continued struggle in order to insure that the military junta will allow for a real democratic transition, the mobilization of Egypt’s civil society and the empowerment of millions of workers, students, intellectuals and others in the cause of freedom will be difficult to contain.

It is disappointing, then, that what should be a near-universal celebration comparable to what greeted the nonviolent overthrows of authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Chile, Serbia and elsewhere has been tempered by the right-wing Netanyahu government in Israel and its supporters in the United States who oppose Egypt’s democratic revolution.

Israel’s standing among democrats in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world has no doubt suffered as a result of the Israeli government’s outspoken support for Mubarak and opposition to the pro-democracy struggle during the Egyptian dictatorship’s final weeks. Indeed, the very assumption that the continued suffering of 82 million Egyptians under a corrupt and brutal authoritarian regime was somehow less important than the possible negative ramifications of democratic change for five and half million Israeli Jews smacks of racism.

In reality, Israel has nothing to worry about.

While sympathy for the Palestinian cause runs deep among ordinary Egyptians, it is hardly the principal focus of the Mubarak regime’s opponents, who are demanding political freedom and economic justice. Unlike the movement which overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, Egypt’s movement is overwhelmingly secular, their civil society is much stronger, the country’s intellectuals and business class are far more open to the West, and there is no religious hierarchy with control over vast networks of resources.

The overwhelming role played by religious forces in Iran contrasts with the demonstrations, strikes, and other actions in Egypt, which has been led from the outset by secular youth through the Internet and other means of communication. The slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, tweets, and Facebook messages have been almost exclusively secular in orientation, pushing nationalistic and liberal democratic themes. And, despite decades of U.S. support for the Mubarak dictatorship, the Egyptian protests have featured virtually no explicit anti-American or anti-Israel overtones, a striking contrast with the Iranian revolution. Indeed, the protests have almost exclusively focused on Mubarak’s misrule rather than the U.S. role in enabling it.

Although most of the Egyptian protesters are presumably practicing Muslims, they show no desire to establish an Islamic state, which was an explicit demand of much of the Iranian revolution’s leading activists from the beginning of the struggle.

The Muslim Brotherhood – which represents at most about 25% or the population – still embraces a tiresome anti-Israel rhetoric, but the current generation in leadership are also pragmatists who have renounced violence and condemned terrorism. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who had been a Muslim Brotherhood activist as a teenager and much later went on to co-found Al-Qaeda, has denounced the Brotherhood precisely for its “betrayal” of what he claimed were “Islamic principles” because they – among other things – “acknowledge the existence of the Jews.”

In a democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely win scores of seats in the 454-member lower house and could even conceivably be a junior partner in a coalition government. But its political orientation would not be much different from the legal conservative Muslim-identified parties currently in the Jordanian and Moroccan parliaments or even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely be more moderate and more committed to the democratic process than some of the hard-line fundamentalist Jewish parties in the current ruling coalition government of Israel.

More importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood – like virtually all Egyptians, in particular the armed forces – recognizes that Israel cannot be defeated militarily. Egypt fought four wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973 and lost each one badly at considerable costs; the military balance is even more skewed in Israel’s favor today. Similarly, support for terrorist groups would invite devastating Israeli military reprisals. Allowing arms, rocketry, or other weapons to Hamas militia could provoke another disastrous military confrontation with Israel which would likely spill over to Egyptian territory.

With so many desperate economic and other domestic problems to deal with in a post-Mubarak era, the last thing Egyptians would support is a war with a powerful neighbor they would surely lose. Military aid and cooperation with the United States, as well as the badly needed economic assistance, would end if Egypt threatened war or supported terrorism.

And, while there has long been popular opposition to the Camp David Accord, the disagreement has generally not been because it made peace with Israel. To most Egyptians, the 1978 peace agreement was problematic for other reasons:

One was that the agreement did not address the plight of the Palestinians or create a comprehensive peace. Just months after Israelis withdrew their troops from a now-demilitarized Sinai Peninsula and no longer having to worry about their southern flank, Israel launched its devastating 1982 war on Lebanon. With the Arab world’s largest and most powerful armed forces no longer able to play a deterrent role, Israel has subsequently been emboldened to launch a series of large-scale military incursions into Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip; colonize much of the West Bank to the verge of making the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible; and place 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt between 1948 and 1967) under a draconian siege with devastating humanitarian consequences. As a result, Mubarak was seen as an accomplice to Israeli militarism, unilateralism, and oppression.

A second objection was that the agreement included what was essentially a tripartite military pact. While most peace agreements historically have resulted in demilitarization, the Camp David agreement instead led to dramatically increased U.S. arms transfers to both Israel and Egypt totaling $5 billion a year. This costs the Egyptians greatly, since – while the military hardware came courtesy of U.S. taxpayers – it ended up costing Egyptians billions of dollars in terms of additional personnel, training, and spare parts. Furthermore, this aid included training and equipment in domestic political repression, mostly used against nonviolent pro-democracy advocates.

The agreement also led to large-scale U.S. economic penetration and the privatization of public assets to wealthy well-connected Egyptian elites and multinational corporations, which further resulted in growing inequality and corruption. Contrary to popular belief in the West, Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat was not assassinated for having made peace with Israel. All indications are that his assassins – part of an underground extremist Islamist group – were far more upset about his domestic repression and opening the country up to Western influence than the peace treaty with Israel. Indeed, the assassin’s cry, “I have killed Pharaoh” – the same moniker given Mubarak by his critics for his autocratic condescending rule – is hardly indicative of an obsession with Israel.

Ironically, most of the prominent American pundits and politicians claiming that the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship would threaten Israel are the very politicians who have encouraged Israel’s wars on civilian populations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and other policies which have helped create extremist elements that really do threaten Israel. Similarly, those now claiming that Egypt’s nonviolent indigenous struggle against Mubarak will result in a repressive Iranian-backed anti-Israel fundamentalist regime are some of the very people who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq — which has resulted in a repressive Iranian-backed anti-Israel fundamentalist regime.

Pro-Mubarak politicians – be they Republicans like Senator John McCain, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ilana Ros-Lehtinen, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, or Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein or Representatives Howard Berman and Gary Ackerman – appear committed to continuing the policies of divide and rule between the Semitic cousins of the Middle East. From providing military aid to rhetorical support, they continue to support the suppression of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East only to then insist the United States has to back the rightist Netanyahu government because Israel is “the sole democracy in the Middle East.” As much a protection racket as a self-fulfilling prophecy, their support for the militarization of the region and their backing of tyrannical regimes appears designed to reinforce their insistence that because Israel is surrounded by authoritarian regimes, close cooperation between the rightist expansionist camp in Israel and the United States military is necessary in order for the Jewish state survive. With Israel as its surrogate, it enhances the U.S. military presence in the critical region of the Middle East.

One cost of U.S. support for authoritarian Arab regimes is that it provides yet another rationalization for blaming the Jews. President Barack Obama’s delay in coming around to support Egypt’s pro-democracy movement – though largely the fault of pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and other hawks in the foreign policy establishment – was instead widely blamed on the Israeli government and “the Israel Lobby.” Meanwhile, the Mubarak regime – supposedly a friend of Israel – was claiming that the protesters and the foreign journalists who were covering them were part of an Israeli plot; pro-democracy demonstrators, human rights monitors and journalists attacked by Mubarak’s goons were routinely subjected to anti-Semitic epithets.

For decades, Arab dictators – now joined by the autocratic Iranian regime – have used Israel as an excuse for their militarization and authoritarianism, cynically manipulating the Palestinian cause for their own ends. Democratic systems, however, are usually far less likely to give in to such scapegoating and paranoia.

Virtually all of the largely nonviolent civil insurrections around the world over the past three decades have led to democratic governance and moderate secular leadership. There is little reason to suspect Egypt would be different. Such nonviolent revolutions require the building of broad coalitions that help encourage pluralism and compromise, empower ordinary people, and build civil society. This creates not just political change but fundamental social change of the kind that has the will and the means to resist potential encroachments against newfound democratic institutions and individual liberties and disingenuous efforts to mobilize support for aggressive war.

As a result, there is little chance Egypt would abrogate Egypt’s 1978 peace agreement with Israel or threaten armed conflict.

However, a democratic Egyptian government would likely be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause and in opposition to the current right-wing Israeli government. A democratic Egypt would likely ease the blockade of food, medicines and other humanitarian goods into the besieged Gaza Strip. Egypt would presumably mobilize its diplomatic clout to try to pressure the Obama administration to go beyond words in blocking Israel’s illegal colonization of occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Taking such positions does not threaten Israel, however. Indeed, these are the very steps that are necessary for making peace.

The emergence of an Arab democratic order that is assertive against the occupation, while not threatening Israel militarily, could help galvanize the Israeli peace movement and other opponents of the Israeli occupation. As Kai Bird, writing in Foreign Policy, noted, “the emergence of an Arab democratic polity should convince Israeli voters that their leaders have become too complacent and too isolationist. After Tahrir, a majority of Israelis may conclude that they can’t live in the neighborhood without forging a real peace with their neighbors.”

What we have seen between Israel and Egypt for the past 33 years has been a cold peace, based upon a Pax Americana, arms transfers, and dictatorial rule. What the region needs is a real peace, made by the democratic governments representing the peoples of the affected countries, based upon international law, self-determination, and human rights.

Why Egypt Will Not Turn Into Another Iran

Some prominent congressional leaders and media pundits, in a cynical effort to mislead the American public into supporting the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and opposing the popular nonviolent struggle for democracy, have raised the specter of Egypt’s government falling into the hands of radical Islamists who would attack Israel and support international terrorism. To illustrate this frightening scenario, these apologists for authoritarianism try to compare the current pro-democracy uprising against the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak with the 1978-79 insurrection against the U.S.-backed Iranian dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

These backers of the Egyptian dictator point out that the Iranian revolution was, like the current uprising in Egypt, initially a broad-based movement of young left-leaning activists struggling for greater democracy. They note, however, that not long after the Shah’s overthrow, the Iranian government was taken over by anti-democratic Islamist clerics and their allies who soon turned Iran into a brutal authoritarian theocratic state whose repression soon surpassed even that of the ousted U.S.-backed monarch.

In reality, there is virtually no chance that Egypt will take such a tragic turn should the revolution succeed in, not only overthrowing Mubarak, but ousting his allies in the military and ruling party. Indeed, comparing the possible popular overthrow of the Egyptian regime with that of the Shah is completely ahistorical.

More accurate analogies to the current struggle in Egypt would include the popular nonviolent insurrections that ousted the right-wing Latin American military juntas in Chile and Bolivia, the authoritarian Asian regimes in Mongolia, the Philippines and Nepal, the Eastern European Communist systems in Poland, East Germany ,and Czechoslovakia,, the African dictatorships in Madagascar and Benin, the post-Communist autocrats in Serbia and Ukraine, and more than a dozen other repressive regimes including such Muslim countries as Mali, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. The transition away from authoritarianism has been smoother in some of these countries than in others, but virtually all of them – including those in which Islamist played a role in the pro-democracy struggle – are democracies at this point.

Not Iran 1979

The difference between Egypt today and Iran of the late 1970s is striking.

The direction of the anti-Shah movement in Iran from the outset came from the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini and other Shiite Muslim clerics. Inspirational sermons, tactical advice, and specific calls for strikes and demonstrations came through smuggled cassette tapes, radio broadcasts, and other communication from the clerical leadership. Though many on the ground in the struggle against the Shah were leftists and other secular democratic forces – some of whom organized important strikes, demonstrations, and other actions independently from the religious hierarchy – the religious overtone of the demonstrations was apparent in the slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, and other means throughout the 13-month struggle that led to the Shah’s overthrow in February 1979.

The overwhelming role played by religious forces in Iran contrasts with the ongoing demonstrations, strikes, and other actions in Egypt, which has been led from the outset by secular youth through the Internet and other means of communication. The slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, tweets, and Facebook messages have been almost exclusively secular in orientation, pushing nationalistic and liberal democratic themes. And, despite decades of U.S. support for the Mubarak dictatorship, the Egyptian protests have featured virtually no explicit anti-Americanism, a striking contrast with the Iranian revolution. Indeed, the current protests have almost exclusively focused on Mubarak’s misrule rather than the U.S. role in enabling it.

Although most of the Egyptian protesters are presumably practicing Muslims, they show no desire to establish an Islamic state, which was an explicit demand of much of the Iranian revolution’s leading activists from the beginning of the struggle.

The Shah’s forced secularization of Iranian society – which was merged in the minds of many Iranians with authoritarianism, corruption, inequality, and Western imperialism – helped create the Islamist reaction. By contrast, Mubarak’s regime, although nominally secular, quietly worked with conservative Muslim elements both to placate religious Egyptians – by expanding religious programming in the media, engaging in religiously based censorship, and discrimination against the country’s Coptic Christian minority – as well as to mobilize some pro-regime Islamists to attack liberal and leftist opponents.

Another key distinction is that Iranian Muslims are overwhelmingly from the Shiite tradition, whereas Egyptian Muslims are Sunni. Shiites have a clear religious hierarchy; ayatollahs are essentially the equivalent of cardinals in the Catholic Church, with schools, medical facilities, social services, and businesses – not to mention houses of worship and large numbers of clergy – under their direct control. Iranian clerics had strong organizational networks under their command they could mobilize and consolidate against democratic secular forces in aftermath of the Shah’s overthrow.

By contrast, Sunnis have an egalitarian tradition. Some clerics may have a bigger following than others, but – unlike Shiites – they do not have a privileged class of spiritual leaders whom believers are obliged to obey. While the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups have supported a network of health care clinics and other social services in Egypt, their leadership does not have anything close to the mobilizing capacity the Shiite clerics had in Iran. Indeed, according to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the group’s Guidance Council, they only operate half a dozen clinics in Cairo, a city of 18 million people.

The ayatollahs influence in Iranian society ended up determining the outcome of the Iranian revolution due to the thoroughness by which the Shah, through his dreaded U.S.-trained SAVAK (secret police), decimated the secular democratic opposition. The mosques and the Shiite religious institutions, by contrast, were much harder to penetrate and suppress and were thereby in a better position to take advantage of the power vacuum after the Shah’s fall.

Most significantly, compared with Iran in the 1970s, Egypt today has a much stronger civil society, a more literate and educated population, greater access to information technologies that didn’t exist in Iran or anywhere else 30 years ago, and – despite serious economic hardships – a larger middle class . Egypt also has a strong tradition of political parties going back to the nineteenth century. Though Egypt has for decades been a one-party state in terms of governance, and elections have been routinely stolen, there are well-established legal political parties. These include the New Wafd, Al-Ghad (“Tomorrow”), the National Progressive Unionists, the Nasserists, the Liberals (Ahrar), and more than a dozen others, virtually all liberal or left-wing.

In addition to these secular political parties, major secular pro-democracy groups include Kefaya (Enough!) and the April 6 Movement, the primary organizers of the recent demonstrations. Industrial labor unions and professional associations are far more prominent in the current demonstrations and in Egyptian society overall than they were in Iran at the time of the revolution. And, unlike Iran under the Shah, Egypt has virtually no prominent dissident Islamic clergy.

Another key distinction between Iran in the 1970s and Egypt today is economic. In Iran, the powerful traditional merchant class – known as bazaaris – was bitter at the Shah’s draconian taxation, fines, and other efforts to place them at a disadvantage to his preferred neo-liberal economic development model that brought in foreign investment, foreign consumer goods, and other competition. They found a natural affinity with the religious hierarchy, who opposed such Western economic (and other) penetration and with whom they had strong historical ties, including intermarriage. As a result, they threw their considerable political and economic influence into the consolidation of clerical rule.

By contrast, the comparable traditional merchant class in Egypt is largely dependent on the tourist trade. Although Iran’s foreign revenue overwhelmingly comes from its sizable oil exports, the number one source of foreign income for Egyptians has long been Western tourism, which would drop off considerably if Egypt fell under radical Islamist control. In addition, the merchant class in Egypt is disproportionately made up of Coptic Christians, who would obviously never support the establishment of an Islamist state.

In addition to the tourist trade, Egypt is far more dependent than Iran on good economic ties with Western countries in other ways as well. Egypt is the largest importer of grain in the world, most of which comes free of charge in the form of U.S. foreign aid. The country’s very economic survival would be a stake if it developed a hostile relationship with the West. Iran, by contrast, is one of the world’s largest oil exporters and – despite U.S. sanctions – has always had a steady source of outside revenue without foreign tourists or foreign aid.

The Muslim Brotherhood

U.S. apologists for the Egyptian dictatorship point to the fact that the largest single opposition group – and arguably best organized – is the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which has played a role in Egyptian politics since the 1920s. Being the single largest opposition group, however, does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood has majority support – far from it. Most estimates put their popular support at 20-15 percent, with the upper estimate at 30 percent or slightly higher. Its active adherents probably number no more than 100,000 out of a population of over 82 million. There are also serious divisions between the more progressive and more conservative elements within the movement, and it would likely split into two or more political parties once legalized. Indeed, according to the Egyptian newspaper El-Masry El-Youm, both the women’s and youth wing appear to have already split from the Muslim Brotherhood last week and joined the April 6 Movement.

Many Egyptians have been attracted to the Brotherhood simply because it was the largest and best-organized opposition to the dictatorship. With Mubarak gone and a democratic order in place encouraging a plethora of other political movements to organize without fear or political repression, many more visible and viable choices would be available to the Egyptian voter.

The young activists of Kefaya and the April 6 Movement consider the Muslim Brotherhood and its aging leadership to be as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the regime. A full 60 percent of Egypt’s population is under 30 years of age and – like young people in most countries – their attitudes regarding the role of women, sexuality, and related issues tends to be more tolerant than their elders, so the Muslim Brotherhood’s social conservatism is not very appealing. In addition, since the Brotherhood has had a hard time recruiting younger members in recent years, their median age is much older than almost any other political grouping. The young people who have joined the movement during the past decade or so have tended to be modernists and reformers.

Also limiting the Muslim Brotherhood’s appeal is that it not only refused to endorse the smaller protests and strikes of the young pro-democracy activists in the years leading up to the current uprising, it offered only a half-hearted and very belated endorsement of the massive protests of January 25 that launched the pro-democracy insurrection. Although their support for the demonstrations became more visible subsequently as the popular struggle gained momentum, this apparent opportunism has undoubtedly weakened their standing among those committed to creating a new Egypt.

U.S. officials in the State Department and elsewhere familiar with Egyptian politics, even under the Bush administration, have long dismissed claims that the demise of the Egyptian regime would lead to a fundamentalist state. U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Ricciardone argued in a January 2006 cable recently made public through Wikileaks that “We do not accept the proposition that Egypt’s only choices are a slow-to-reform authoritarian regime or an Islamist extremist one; nor do we see greater democracy in Egypt as leading necessarily to a government under the MB.” In another cable three months earlier, the ambassador noted how Egyptian authorities “have a long history of threatening us with the MB bogeyman.”

Not only will the Muslim Brotherhood not likely play a major role in a post-revolutionary Egyptian government, it is not an extremist group like the Taliban. A number of radical Islamist organizations, ranging from the Palestinian Hamas to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, split off from the Muslim Brotherhood several decades ago. Today’s Brotherhood is a relatively moderate organization committed to electoral politics and nonviolent organizing. It formally renounced armed struggle more than 40 years ago and has repeatedly condemned terrorism, particularly the large-scale international terrorism of al-Qaeda.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s so-called “al-Qaeda link” cited by U.S. apologists for the Egyptian dictatorship primarily is in regard to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who had been a Muslim Brotherhood activist as a teenager and much later went on to co-found the terrorist organization with Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri, however, rejected the Brotherhood precisely because of its rejection of violence and relatively moderate politics, which he denounced as a “betrayal” of “Islamic principles.” According to the al-Qaeda second-in-command, the Muslim Brotherhood was “falsely affiliated with Islam” because its leadership allegedly “forget about the rule of Shariah, welcome the Crusaders’ bases in your countries and acknowledge the existence of the Jews.”

In a democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely win scores of seats in the 454-member lower house and could even conceivably be a junior partner in a coalition government. But its political orientation would not be much different from the legal conservative Muslim-identified parties currently in the Jordanian and Moroccan parliaments or even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely be more moderate and more committed to the democratic process than some of the hard-line fundamentalist Jewish parties in the current ruling coalition government of Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Though strongly anti-Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood recognizes along with the Egyptian armed forces that Israel cannot be defeated militarily. Egypt fought four wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973 and lost each one badly at considerable costs; the military balance is even more skewed in Israel’s favor today. Support for terrorist groups would invite devastating Israeli military reprisals. With so many desperate economic and other domestic problems to deal with in a post-Mubarak era, the last thing Egyptians would support is a war with a powerful neighbor they would surely lose. Although a democratic Egyptian government would likely be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause and in opposition to the current right-wing Israeli government – and would likely ease the blockade of food, medicines and other humanitarian goods into the besieged Gaza Strip – it would never abrogate Egypt’s 1978 peace agreement with Israel. Too much U.S. aid depends on maintaining the agreement.

Nonviolent Democratic Change

Virtually all of the largely nonviolent civil insurrections around the world over the past three decades have led to democratic governance and moderate secular leadership. There is little reason to suspect Egypt would be different. Such nonviolent revolutions require the building of broad coalitions that help encourage pluralism and compromise, empower ordinary people, and build civil society. This creates not just political change but fundamental social change of the kind that has the will and the means to resist potential encroachments against newfound democratic institutions and individual liberties.

Such movements contrast with armed struggles against authoritarian governments, where martial values predominate and an elite vanguard controls the course of the revolution, more often than not resulting in another dictatorship.

Even more problematic is when a dictator is overthrown through outside intervention, since the newly installed regime dependent on a foreign occupying force tends to result in its delegitimization in the eyes of their citizens, creating a nationalist reaction that could lead to a violent insurrection that in turn leads to repressive rule. Indeed, this is exactly what has taken place in Iraq. Ironically, most of the prominent American pundits and politicians now claiming that Egypt’s nonviolent indigenous struggle against Mubarak will result in a repressive Iranian-backed fundamentalist regime are some of the very people who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq – which has resulted in a repressive Iranian-backed fundamentalist regime.

A democratic Egyptian government will certainly take more independent positions from the United States on some strategic and economic issues. It would likely be less amenable to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions. Being dependent on the will of the Egyptian people for its authority, such a government will likely be relatively nationalistic, attempting to prioritize the needs of Egyptians more than the current authoritarian regime has felt obliged to do.

However, while a democratic Egypt – which could help pave the way for greater democracy elsewhere in the Arab world – may set back certain perceived U.S. strategic and economic interests in the short- to medium-term, it would be the best thing that could happen in the long-term.

Terrorism and extremism, Islamic and otherwise, tend to grow out of authoritarian societies where it becomes impossible to address grievances, defend human rights, and demand social and economic justice through democratic means. “The images of intimidation and fraud that have emerged from the recent elections favor the Islamist extremists whom we both oppose,” Ambassador Ricciardone acknowledged in a cable to FBI director Robert Mueller following the 2005 Egyptian elections. “The best way to counter narrow-minded Islamist politics is to open the system.” It’s no surprise that virtually all of al-Qaeda’s leaders and financial backers – and a large majority of its members – have come from countries ruled by U.S.-backed dictators like Mubarak.

For its overall national security interests, then, the United States must end its support of the Mubarak regime and other Middle Eastern dictators and welcome nonviolent democratic movements for change.

Egypt’s pro-democracy movement: the struggle continues

Despite the natural subsidence of dramatic demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, as many protesters return to jobs and catch their breath, there is little question that the pro-democracy struggle in Egypt has achieved lasting momentum, barring unexpected repression. As with other kinds of civil struggles, a movement using nonviolent resistance can ebb and flow. There may have to be tactical retreats, times for regrouping or resetting of strategy, or a focus on negotiations with the regime before broader operations that capture the world’s attention resume.

Those who were expecting a quick victory are no doubt disappointed, but successful People Power movements of recent decades have usually been protracted struggles. It took nearly a decade between the first strikes in the Gdansk shipyards and the fall of Communism in Poland; Chile’s democratic struggle against the Pinochet regime took three years between the first major protests and the regime’s acquiescence to holding the referendum which forced the dictator from power.

Most successful unarmed insurrections against authoritarian regimes take a much shorter time, but they usually take weeks or months rather than days. As of this writing, the Egyptian protests have only been going for two weeks. It took ten weeks of struggle in East Germany during the fall of 1989 before the Berlin Wall came down. It took three months before the first student demonstrations in Mali and the downfall of the Traore dictatorship in 1991. Indeed, the pro-democracy movement in Tunisia which many credit as having inspired the Egyptian uprising took nearly a month, and they are still struggling to ensure that the end of the Ben Ali regime will also lead to real democracy.

Despite the failure of the protests in Egypt thus far to dislodge the hated Mubarak regime or force the president’s resignation, there have been some notable victories.

Millions of Egyptians, in direct defiance of emergency laws banning public demonstrations, have taken part in pro-democracy protests. A remarkable cross-section of Egyptian society was visible in these demonstrations in Cairo and other cities across the country: young and old, Muslim and Christian, men and women, poor and middle class, secular and religious. Despite waves of attacks by plainsclothes police and paid squads of young toughs, clearly unleashed by the regime – and comparable to the notorious Basiji in Iran or Mugabe’s green bombers in Zimbabwe – which the regime hoped would disperse the protesters and cower them into submission, the pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square have held fast. Moreover, there have been key defections among prominent journalists and intellectuals who were previously willing to parrot the government’s line or keep quiet – for example, the president of the Arab League joined the protests at one point. The movement has also provided cover and legitimacy for opposition political figures who would have otherwise been jailed or ignored.

Equally importantly, the movement has forced the United States and other western governments to end their unconditional support for the regime and press for Mubarak to step down. These shifts illustrate that, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington and London will ignore what happens on the ‘Arab street,’ it has proven itself capable of disrupting expectations in Washington and London.

Specifically, the demonstrators have forced Mubarak to renounce plans for re-election or to have his son run in his place, making him a lame duck. Their exposure of the ruling party’s corruption has led leading figures to formally resign from the party, including Mubarak and his son. They have forced the government into negotiations with representatives from the opposition.

Above all, events of the past couple of weeks have changed Egyptian society. German anthropologist Samuli Schielke, who was present at the demonstrations, observed that the sense of unity and power experienced by the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere is necessarily transient. Negotiations, party politics, tactical decisions and other processes that will inevitably arise during the course of a democratic transition are going to be messy and not produce the incredible energy of coming together in the popular contestation of public space and saying “no!” However, he observes, “thanks to its utopian nature, it is also indestructible. Once it has been realised, it cannot be wiped out of people’s minds again. It will be an experience that, with different colourings and from different perspectives, will mark an entire generation.”

Similarly, after covering both the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, British journalist Peter Beaumont emphasized the significance of this shift in attitude: “A threshold of fear has been crossed. For what has happened in both countries is that the structures of a police state have been challenged and found, to the surprise of many, to be weaker than imagined.” He goes on to note that regardless of how soon Mubarak is forced to leave, “a transition of power is already under way” – not as a result of formal negotiations or diplomatic efforts by the United States or the European Union, but from the people effective seizing power for themselves. The bold actions by what were once relatively small bands of activists “have been embraced by a wider population no longer afraid to speak or to assemble.”

For years, the Mubarak regime has offered short-term fixes and various small concessions which have failed to pull up the roots of the country’s problems. A combination of paternalism and repression by the regime had fostered an atmosphere of apathy and cynicism. Now, however, a whole new generation has been empowered and the regime, with its feet to the fire, realizes more significant changes are necessary if they are going to survive. Yet each new concession demonstrates the regime’s relative weakness and the movement’s growing power, thereby emboldening the activists to press forward with their demands for an authentic democratic transition.

The movement will have to think strategically as to how it might be able to achieve victory. A recent article on these pages by Maciej Bartkowski and Lester Kurtz compares the Solidarity movement in Poland, which was able to force the Communist regime to negotiate a series of compromises which eventually led to multi-party democratic elections in which the Communists were defeated, with the youthful pro-democracy activists on Tiananmen Square during that same period whose all-or-nothing demands failed to budge the regime and resulted in a massacre and the crushing of the movement. Sometimes a movement will have to be temporarily satisfied with a series of relatively minor concessions, declare a partial victory as a testament of their power and the vulnerability of the regime to pressure, then regroup for another round of public resistance and demands, and continue this process until the government has given away so much they no longer effectively rule. What makes this more feasible in the Egyptian case than perhaps in other movements that have so far been unsuccessful, as in Iran, is that the Egyptian Army has plainly been unwilling to engage in general repression. This seems to have created a viable political space for the movement, where effectively none existed before except through the internet and organizing out of sight of the authorities.

It is also important to recognize that successful unarmed insurrections against dictatorships have usually engaged in a multiplicity of tactics other than the mass demonstrations and multi-day sit-ins. For example, the movement could take advantage of the government’s economic vulnerabilities. Already, as a result of the de facto 12-day general strike and other disruptions, including the exodus of foreign tourists and the regime’s decision to shut down the Internet for a period, the country lost well over $3 billion in revenue. The desperate xenophobic campaign by the regime – including Mubarak’s thugs attacking foreign journalists, human rights workers and others – has undoubtedly scared away not only tourists but inhibited business visitors.

Other potential tactics by the opposition, such as periodic work stoppages and slowdowns, one-day general strikes, tax resistance, selective international sanctions targeted at the regime and its supporters, or a boycott of particular industries or institutions controlled by the government, armed forces, ruling party or pro-Mubarak families, would squeeze further the regime’s ability to demonstrate that it has any meaningful control of events going forward.

It is critical that, whatever tactics are employed, there needs to be long-range strategic planning, a logical sequencing of tactics, and an awareness that – as in any campaign – one needs to take advantage of one’s strengths and target the opponent’s weaknesses.

The dramatic events of recent weeks have illustrated that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves. Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its legitimacy and withdraw their cooperation from business and life as usual. Mubarak and his enablers have lost their long primacy in Egyptian affairs and it is doubtful that either he or his vice-president Omar Suleiman, the notorious former head of military intelligence, will be able to regain it. Supplanting the regime with a legitimate government that emerges from free and fair elections will be no easy task. But the most important steps, the dissolution of the status quo and the empowerment of the people, have already been accomplished.

Egypt: Lessons in Democracy

Together, the unarmed insurrection that overthrew the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the ongoing uprising in Egypt have dramatically altered the way many in the West view prospects for democratization in the Middle East. The dramatic events of recent weeks have illustrated that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.

While many observers have acknowledged how unarmed pro-democracy insurrections helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa, they had discounted the chances of such movements in the region, despite Tunisia being far from the first.

There has actually been a long history of nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt wrested its independence from Great Britain as a result of a massive nonviolent resistance campaign launched in 1919. In Sudan, military dictators were ousted in nonviolent insurrections in 1964 and 1985, though the democratic experiments that followed were cut short by military coups a few years later. In 1991, in a nonviolent struggle succeeded in ousting the Traore dictatorship in Mali, despite the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters by the armed forces. Though it is one of the poorest countries in the world, Mali has been one of the most stable and democratic countries in the region ever since. The recently published book Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East documents numerous other popular pro-democracy movements throughout the Arab world.

The current struggle in Egypt—the center of Arab media, scholarship, and culture—has enormous ramifications for the region as a whole. The predominantly young secular activists who initiated the struggle reject not only the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak but also conservative Islamist leaders; they have put together a broad coalition of young and old, Muslim and Christian, poor and middle class to challenge a brutal corrupt regime which has held power for nearly thirty years. Like-minded civil society activists are organizing elsewhere. Indeed, 2011 could be to the Arab world what 1989 was to Eastern Europe.

In the early days of the uprisings, top U.S. officials defended the United States’ close ties with the authoritarian leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and, making lukewarm statements about the need for “reform” and urging “both sides” to refrain from violence (despite the far greater violence from state authorities). They refused to back the pro-democracy movements, call for democratic change, or threaten the suspension of U.S. military aid. However, the very day Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, President Obama came out with a strong statement lauding the pro-democracy movement and criticizing the dictator’s oppression. Similarly, in the early days of the Egyptian protests, Obama administration officials made similar calls for “restraint” on “both sides,” speaking only in terms of reform from within Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. By the fifth day of the demonstrations, however, apparently not wanting to be on the wrong side of history, the Obama administration started speaking in terms of a transition to democratic rule and making it clear that large-scale repression of nonviolent protesters—which would presumably be implemented with U.S.-supplied weaponry—would be unacceptable.

These shifts illustrate that, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

This change is long overdue. The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, had fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, Obama’s understandable skepticism of the neoconservative doctrine of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” turned into an excuse for further arming these regimes—which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular, indigenous, bottom-up struggles for democratization.

At the same time, there was a subtle, but important, shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights when Obama came to office two years ago. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections—which can, in many cases, be easily rigged and manipulated—in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest, recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above.

Until now, this had largely been rhetorical. Even now, as of this writing, the United States still needs to take a firmer stance toward Mubarak and the Egyptian military. And, regarding U.S. policy in the region as a whole, the United States needs to stop propping up other Arab dictators and supporting the Israeli occupation through ongoing military assistance.

However, the Obama administration has been reminded of where power actually comes from: Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. Through general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, who—like the Tunisians, Serbians, Filipinos, Poles, and many others before—have faced down the teargas, water cannons, truncheons, and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s No.1 supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support for freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

MSNBC Q&A on Egypt

Q: Which countries in the region share similar economic, political, demographic and social conditions to those that have ignited unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?

A: Most Arab countries share these problems. However, some are more susceptible to these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.

Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?

these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.
Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?
A: Israel, of course, is traditionally America’s strongest ally. Egypt is the most important Arab ally in terms of strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth, is most important economically. Iraq continues to be the biggest worry, given the ongoing violence and instability and the domination of the government by hard-line Shiite parties, some of which have ties to Iran. In general, while the prospects of democratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere may result in their pursuing policies that are less amenable to the United States, international financial institutions, and other Western powers than the current pro-Western dictators, in the long term, I would argue that greater democratization in the Arab world is beneficial to America’s economic and security interests: When people can address their grievances nonviolently through an established political process, they are far less prone to embrace extremist ideologies and terrorism.
Q: What can you tell us about how widespread the support is for the uprising among Egyptians?
A: One thing that’s struck me about this uprising is its breadth — old-young, men-women, Christian-Muslim, secular-poor and middle class; factory workers and intellectuals. Though the initial instigators were young and middle class, it’s one of the broadest based uprisings of its kind I’ve ever seen. If there were a free election held today I’d be surprised if Mubarak got more that 20-23 percent of the vote. Of course, he wouldn’t hold free elections and all the elections held in the past have been rigged.
Q: I know this situation has a very long history, but can you tell us what has spurred this to happen now?
A: Frustration with the Mubarak regime has been growing, but no doubt the democratic revolution in Tunisia played a role. Indeed, recent decades have seen scores of unarmed insurrections against corrupt autocratic regimes from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to Serbia, from Maldives to Mali.
Q: What are the basics that the people are demanding? That is, for what are they struggling/fighting?
A: Freedom of speech, press, assembly, free/honest elections, etc. which they believe is impossible as long as Mubarak (or his son) is in power. Also, greater economic justice; poverty and inequality are growing. Liberalizing the economy while not liberalizing the political system is a dangerous combination.
Q: Given that this is happening in more than one Arab country, what do you think the likelihood is that this could spread to Saudi Arabia? Is the House of Fahd any better positioned to deal with an uprising than Mubarak?
A: Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, will probably be among the last to change. As an oil-rich … state, they can buy off a lot of potential opponents. In addition, the power of the hard-line Wahabbi clerics may make pro-democracy elements nervous about challenging the monarchy for fear at what might replace it.
Q: What role do you believe the Muslim Brotherhood is playing in the Egypt protests and does that organization enjoy broad support among the Egyptian people?
A: The demonstrations are led primarily by young people who are not only anti-regime, but find the aging leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the government. There seems little support for the more extreme Islamists either. The Brotherhood’s refusal to endorse the protests until after they started and were clearly gaining support was clearly opportunistic and doesn’t help their standing.
Q: Does Iran play any part in this … behind the scenes?
A: Iran has very little influence in Egyptian politics.
Q: With the U.S. support of Mubarak, how can they expect anyone that replaces him to be friendly to the U.S. It seems like the U.S. once again has provided an excuse to an Islamic state to hate them.
A: While I don’t expect a post-Mubarak government to be fanatically anti-American or dominated by Islamist radicals, there is understandable disappointment among most Egyptians at the longstanding support from Washington of the Mubarak dictatorship. A democratic Egyptian government would likely be somewhat more independent from the U.S. and the IMF, but not overtly hostile.
Q: Is there popular support for Mohamed ElBaradei? What aspirations does he have?
both secular nationalists and moderate Islamists. Has strong democratic credentials.
Q: How do these protests affect other moderate governments in the region, such as Jordan?
A: I think authoritarian governments throughout the region, whether they are pro- or anti-American, are probably pretty nervous right now.
Q: Does Mubarak still enjoy support from the military, or is their allegiance leaning towards the protesters?
A: The military leadership still supports him, but there are serious questions as to whether ordinary soldiers will be willing to suppress the protesters.
Q: Do you think people in Egypt will be able to accomplish anything out of this protest? Even with the strict government they have?
A: Egypt will never be the same. The apathy and feelings of powerlessness have been shattered. Even if Mubarak survives the current round of protests, Egyptian civil society has been re-awakened. His days in power are numbered. It’s a reminder that if democracy comes to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Western capitals, but from the people themselves.
Q: Is the safety of Israel at risk if the government is toppled, and what would happen to the world’s oil supply’s ability to make it thru the Suez Canal?
A: The people of Egypt want social and economic justice and would not be inclined to get in a war with Israel or risk a confrontation with the international community around oil supplies. These protests are about domestic issues, about freedom and justice. While there is certainly broad sympathy for the Palestinian cause, they have more pressing matters at home to deal with.
Q: Is this an uprising more rooted in oppression from the government rather than a religious ideology?
A: There are Christians and Muslims and secularists all out of the street. This is very much about resisting government oppression and its mismanagement of the economy than about religion.
Q: How do the riots affect us here in the U.S.? Why should we care?
A: The United States has been the major economic, political and military supporter of the Mubarak regime for nearly 30 years. This has hurt our standing. Much of the anti-Americanism in the Middle East is not because they “hate our freedom” but because our policies have, unfortunately, been less about freedom than about supporting dictators like Mubarak. This needs to change if we are to have any credibility in that part of the world.
Q: Do you think that regional unrest will prompt U.S. military action? Will it prompt any economic sanctions or other penalties?
A: Not likely. Military force paradoxically doesn’t work very well against hundreds of thousands of unarmed demonstrators. In addition, I would assume that the Obama administration would recognize it would put us on the wrong side of history. U.S. intervention will probably be limited to the diplomatic front. So far there have been no threats of suspending U.S. military aid.
Q: What sort of time frame are you expecting in terms of transition in Egypt? And, what other power players might try to muscle in?
A: No telling. Obviously lots of domestic and foreign elements will try to take advantage of the situation, but it will be the Egyptian people on the streets who will ultimately determine the nation’s future.
Q: Would whatever type of regime that arises from this keep similar relations that Israel and Egypt currently have, or could this lead to a step back?
A: I would guess that a democratic Egyptian government might be more outspokenly critical of certain Israeli policies, but I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of breaking off the peace treaty or anything like that.
Q: Are we seeing signs of broader support from the Egyptian middle class or the intellectual community and how important is that to the success of the protesters in this situation?
A: Yes, there is growing opposition across class lines. And, even if the protests are initially suppressed, I think it will embolden Egyptian intellectuals to be more outspoken in their opposition.
Q: Is this similar to the protests in Iran, i.e., the government will slowly squash it?
A: The Egyptian government could, like the Iranian regime in 2009, successfully crush the rebellion this round. However, the Egyptian regime has a much smaller social base than the Iranian regime, and is therefore far more vulnerable in the longer term.
Q: How will this affect control of the Suez canal – thus the price of oil?
A: It shouldn’t affect the normal operations of the Suez Canal, unless the canal operators joined a general strike. Even in that case, the impact on oil prices would be minimal, since most supertankers are too big for the canal anyway.
Q: If Hosni Mubarak steps down, how likely is it that his son, Gamal Mubarak, (or perhaps his other son) would take over and be accepted by the people? … Do the Egyptian citizens view the sons any differently than the father? (Editor’s note: BBC News reported Saturday that the elder Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, had flown to London; Egypt’s state-run television denied the report.)
A: Gamal is disliked even more than his father. I was one of those predicting an uprising like we are seeing now if he was named president. Even in Hosni Mubarak can hold on for awhile longer, I think it’s safe to say at this point that Gamal’s career is finished.
Q: Why is Gamal more disliked than his father?
A: Gamal is seen as a spoiled brat and not particularly competent. In addition, the 1952 revolution was to overthrow a monarchy and establish a republic, so hereditary succession is seen as something of an anachronism.
Q: How will this unrest affect U.S. citizens who want to travel to Egypt?
A: I don’t think they have to worry about their personal safety in terms of being attacked for being Americans. However, normal travel could be disrupted because of demonstrations, etc.
Q: What is the “best case” scenario for this demonstration?
A: Best case scenario in my view would be a speedy transition to an interim government under ElBaradei or similar credible figure with free elections some time in the next few months.
Q: Is it probable that Mubarak will agree to at least some of the protesters’ demands? And, are the protesters likely to accept?
A: Mubarak may try to accede to some of the protesters demands, but at this point he may need to be thinking more in terms of sooner or later going into exile. His credibility is shot at this point.
Q: What role are women playing in the protests? Are Muslim and Christian women taking to the streets?
A: Women have not been as visible as during the Tunisian protests, but they have been present, particularly during the more nonviolent protests during daylight. And there have been both Christians and Muslims, both with headscarves and without.
Q: Do you see a warmer peace with Israel if Mubarak falls? I would describe the current peace as a cold peace.
A: At least while the current right-wing Israeli government is in power, it will more likely continue to be a cold peace. Things could warm up with a more moderate Israeli leadership, however.
Q: What do you think the U.S. response should be?
A: I have been disappointed in the Obama administration’s failure to more openly challenge the Mubarak regime and more openly support the pro-democracy movement. I would advocate, for example, for a suspension of U.S. military aid.
Q: Does the wave of activism in north Africa prompt the populations of Iran and Syria to respond in a similar manner? Are there benevolent monarchies in the region that have earned a viable relationship with their citizenry, thereby mitigating the populist uprisings?
A: Civil society is weaker in Syria and their secret police are stronger, but there is still a lot of discontent with Assad. I do expect to see another round of protests in Iran at some point, not because of North Africa, but because the grievances with the Iranian regime are as strong as ever. Kuwait, in part because of major nonviolent protests a few years ago, has opened up politically. The monarchy is still ultimately in charge, but the parliament has some real power as well.
Q: In light of the events in Egypt, how significant is it that Jordan’s King Abdullah sacked his government? How do you rate the likelihood of a “domino effect” toppling other strongmen in the region?
A: It is indicative that even under a monarchy, people power can lead to changes in unpopular appointees and unpopular policies. Whether the monarchy itself is threatened is unclear at this time. There is little question that events in Tunisia and Egypt will inspire pro- democracy movements throughout the region. Egypt is particularly significant, given that it is not only by far the largest Arab country, but traditionally the center of media, scholarship, and popular culture.
Regimes will be forced to make substantial reforms in order to survive. Those that don’t could be putting themselves in jeopardy. Indeed, 2011 could be to the Middle East what 1989 was to Eastern Europe.