“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
–Rudyard Kipling, “If”
By Barry Rubin
The time has come to advance a new thesis. Since I was just about the first person anywhere to warn publicly that the Egyptian revolution wasn’t necessarily going to be a bed of roses, let me now suggest a daring idea that seems increasingly possible. I speak here as a political analyst and not as an advocate of any policy or outcome, neither cheering nor booing but merely observing.
What if the regime in Egypt doesn’t fall? What if it survives this crisis, with a change of leader (inevitable given Husni Mubarak’s advanced age), some reforms, and some concessions? What if the revolution fizzles?
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After all, by standing firm, the regime has kept the upheaval from growing bigger and spreading farther. With the army at its side, the regime does not have to surrender at all.
In addition, this is not some one-man reign in a tiny Third World country. The government is not the Mubarak regime but the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak regime, now approaching its sixtieth anniversary. In addition, there is a huge bureaucracy, powerful economic interests, and the entire military hierarchy tied to the regime. They are willing to let Mubarak go but why should this huge sector give up its wealth, power, and privileges when it doesn’t have to do so?
Moreover, let’s remember something rather important. Aside from (well-deserved) fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is the broader concern over anarchy and violence. If you are a member of this political-economic-military elite, you could not only lose your job but all your wealth and even your life. Who knows if the new rulers at some point would start executing people?
I am certainly not saying that it’s all over nor am I suggesting anyone should rejoice. A tragedy is a situation in which there is no easy way out and perhaps no good way out at all. At any rate, the only thing that really matters is what happens in Egypt itself. And that we will have to watch to see. Nevertheless, a new variable must be considered: non-revolution.
Of course, the Obama administration never should have thought the regime would crumble like a house of cards. Threatened with the downfall of them all (and not just Mubarak) they seem to have decided: let’s stick together and outlast the demonstrators. Let people get tired of chaos, ready to return to work, eager to have the army (which the opposition keeps reminding people is beloved by the Egyptian people) restore order.
After all, the elite was never in love with the idea of having Husni’s son, Gamal, take over. Many will say that this is the silver lining of the revolutionary disorder. Indeed, it proves why he was incapable of doing the job–running off, in contrast to his father–the moment things got scary. Now, they figure, they can put someone relatively competent into power.
Speaking of having someone competent in power, this brings us to the question of U.S. policy. I can’t get the story of “Lord Jim,” the great Joseph Conrad novel, out of my mind. The main character is a professional sailor who is one of the officers aboard a broken-down freighter carrying hundreds of poor Muslim pilgrims from the East Indies to Mecca. The ship hits something and a storm is approaching. The crew decide, without checking properly, that the ship is going to sink. They panic and take to the lifeboats, betraying their duty and leaving the Muslims on board to die.
But the ship doesn’t sink at all and the passengers are rescued by a passing naval vessel. The crew is put on trial and disgraced, losing their licenses. The humiliated young man can only restore his honor by acts of great bravery, which is the rest of the novel.
Within hours of the start of Egypt’s crisis, Barack Obama panicked and took to the lifeboats or, to use the contemporary phrase, was ready to throw the regime under the bus. Here, I’m not judging on a basis of human rights, national interests, morality, or anything else: I’m just stating a fact. In a world that, at least outside of Western Europe, favors strong leaders, Obama came off as more Wayne Newton than John Wayne. (continues after cartoon)
For comparison’s sake, here are some appropriate John Wayne quotes:
“A lot of guys make mistakes, I guess, but every one we make…and some guy don’t walk away – forevermore, he don’t walk away.” –“Sands of Iwo Jima.”
“Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.” –“Stagecoach”
“This kind of war, you’ve gotta believe in what you’re fighting for.” –“Back to Bataan”
Now here’s Obama, at the height of the Iranian democratic demonstrations against a regime far more brutal than Mubarak’s: “We are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”
Well, you get the picture. Who do you want in your foxhole?
So how is Obama going to look if the ship stays afloat?
After all, this is an American government that a few days ago “ordered” Egypt’s government to go, starting “now,” even starting “yesterday.” One of several bad decisions was a failure to distinguish between Mubarak and the regime. These people still don’t realize what they did wrong:
Privately counseling the Egyptian elite to get rid of Mubarak might well have worked; publicly yelling at them to disband themselves was asking them to commit suicide. Obviously, they were not likely to do so.
Perhaps the most interesting single sentence spoken by anyone during this crisis was when Mubarak said that Obama doesn’t understand Arab culture. What did he mean? Here’s my interpretation:
In Western society, you can compromise and make concessions so that your opponent or potential partner says: What a great person! He’s so reasonable. I, too, will make concessions and we will have a win-win solution!
For decades naïve Westerners have been trying to apply this to the Middle East. It doesn’t work. The more you concede the more the other side concludes you are weak. The more you give, the more they take. Appetite grows with the feeding.
And there’s more. If people think that the other side is stronger, is winning, and you are losing credibility, more and more of them will join that other side out of opportunism or survival.
This is precisely what’s happening in the Middle East. As the United States apologizes and makes unilateral concessions, people are attracted by Iran’s posing as the “strong horse,” ranting, roaring, threatening, and killing. If you throw some of your friends under the bus (Lebanese moderates, Iranian and Turkish oppositionists, Israel, southern Sudan?, etc.), many others will get on the bus.
And the sign on the bus says: The Islamist express. On the back is a bumper sticker that says: We brake for terrorists.
So Mubarak was saying don’t let them see you be afraid or, as the motto of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy puts it, “Don’t panic.”
Yes, Mubarak has been a nasty dictator though less nasty than Iran’s rulers, Syria’s rulers, Hamas in Gaza, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, and the regime in the Sudan. He’s even less brutal than his regime’s founder, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tortured and killed while being wildly popular.
The West, then, interpreted events in Egypt in its own image: Mubarak as Darth Vader (or Dick Cheney, whichever you think is worse), the revolutionaries as heroic strugglers (which is why we weren’t permitted to point out that many of them were Islamists who wanted to set up a worse dictatorship), and Obama as the moral, all-seeing president who knows America’s interests are best served by taking a leap in the dark with no strategy, no serious evaluation, and no clearly defined goal.
Is this a tragedy for all those Egyptians who really do want a moderate, secular democracy? You bet it is. But one day, when there are enough people like that, they will succeed.
As I pointed out earlier, the crew of Lord Jim’s broken-down freighter was disgraced by panicking. But there’s at least one important difference between them and the U.S.-Egypt events: Those men weren’t responsible for their ship being broken down. In terms of U.S. Middle East policy, a lot of leaks in the ship of state can be attributed to its current captain.
Notes: the title of this article is a play on the 1960s’ saying, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Wayne Newton is an American singer; John Wayne is a macho American actor known especially for his roles portraying cowboys and soldiers.