February 3, 2011
My old political philosophy teacher Professor Yusuf Ibish outlined the conditions he thought would lead inevitably to revolution. They included the population’s impoverishment, denial of dignity, and repressive rulers who used torture and false imprisonment. I asked him where conditions would create such a revolution, and without hesitation he answered, “Egypt.” He said this in the spring of 1973. The Egyptian people are thirty-eight years late.
The question is not so much why Egyptians are out in the street demanding the end of Hosni Mubarak’s kleptocratic torture chamber as why have they waited so long. As anyone who has visited the land of the pharaohs knows, the Nile flows so slowly you can barely notice it moving. Egyptians are as patient as the river, but they flood into the streets when the ruling class dams them up without a release valve. Like the British were surprised on Black Saturday 1952 when the Egyptians burned down their clubs, hotels, and banks, the United States did not see this tide building into a wave of anger. The 1952 Cairo riots erupted on January 26, almost fifty-nine years to the day that Egyptians came out again to oust Mubarak just as they’d forced the Egyptian Army to dethrone King Farouk. Farouk tried the same ploy that Mubarak is using now: dismissing his government and appointing a new one. The protestors did not care about government ministers then and don’t now. Farouk had to go, and now so must Mubarak.
The Egyptians are not a vindictive people, as their patience and their famed humor prove. They let Farouk sail out on his yacht, the Mahroussa, with his family and some of his wealth. If the Army acts to remove Mubarak, they will undoubtedly afford him a similar courtesy—far more than he did for opponents whom his police have shot and killed over the past twenty-nine years.
General Mohammed Naguib, titular head of the Free Officers Movement that overthrew the king in July 1952, stated the revolution’s motives in terms that would apply to Mubarak today:
Egypt’s reputation among the peoples of the world has been debased as a result of your excesses in these areas to the extent that traitors and bribe-takers find protection beneath your shadow in addition to security, excessive wealth, and many extravagances at the expense of the hungry and impoverished people.
Like the British, the US misunderstood Egypt. It mistook patience for permanent acceptance. Getting Egypt wrong is a constant in American foreign policy. The US never understood that the new Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, wanted independence not only from Britain, but also from the US and USSR. The CIA’s Kim Roosevelt thought he could bribe Nasser with a cash-filled suitcase, which Nasser courteously accepted and used to construct a monument visible to all of Cairo that his aides allegedly called el wa’ef Rusfel, i.e., “Roosevelt’s Erection.”
The Israelis got Egypt wrong, too. They thought they could drive a wedge between Nasser and the US by planting bombs in American institutions in Egypt that would be blamed on the Egyptians. The Egyptian police apprehended the Israeli spies responsible, and the damage was to Israeli-American relations. It was one of several Israeli attacks on Americans, like 1967’s bombing of the USS Liberty, that have been written out of history.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said he believed that Egypt was incapable of mounting an attack to win back the Sinai Peninsula, and he supported Israel’s policy of refusing to negotiate its complete return. On the eve of Egypt’s invasion of the Sinai on October 6 1973, Kissinger asked for intelligence on the possibility of an Egyptian attack. As the war was ending on October 23, he told his staff he had requested
“…intelligence estimates, producing a massive row between CIA and INR [State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research] as to who was entitled to produce intelligence estimates for the Secretary. We got one estimate for the Secretary and one for the Assistant to the President. Both of which, however, agreed on the proposition that an Arab attack was highly improbable. These intelligence reports were confirmed during the week. And indeed the morning of the attack, the President’s daily brief, intelligence brief, still pointed out there was no possibility of an attack.”
When the attack came, returning Sinai to Egypt at last became possible. Kissinger, however, delayed this as long as he could—as he did a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and all its neighbors that should have come out of the 1973 war and would have made it the last.
In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shocked Washington with his offer to visit Jerusalem and negotiate directly with Israel. A few years later, American diplomats in Cairo were telling journalists such as me that the Army was wholly loyal to Sadat. On October 6 1981, while Sadat celebrated his “assault on the Suez Canal” at a Cairo parade, members of his Army shot him dead. The US oversaw the transition to his successor, an Egyptian Air Force general named Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak acquired the same affection for money and power’s trappings that Sadat did, encouraging his family and friends to treat Egypt’s wealth and American aid as if both were their own. Riots came and went over such trifles as the price of bread and gasoline, as they had under Sadat. Unlike Sadat, Mubarak started grooming his son to succeed him. The US seemed untroubled by this until recently, when it opened lines to those in Egypt’s opposition who were willing to speak to American diplomats and spies. Too late.
Even though it directly followed Tunisia’s successful rebellion, the size of Egyptian public opposition to Mubarak took the US by surprise. Washington is not coping well with whatever change is coming, and it may have no more influence over it than it did in Iran in 1979 or Russia a dozen years later.
This may be a good thing for the Egyptians, but the American Mideast policy is a shambles. I wish Professor Ibish had lived to see it.