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'79/'11: Another Tottering Dictator, Another U.S. Dilemma


02 Feb 2011 17:50Comments

Muslim Brotherhood's pragmatism suggests Islamic Republic not likely model for what comes next.

[ comment ] Comparisons are being made between 1979 revolutionary Iran and the current uprising in Egypt. If there is one common thread it is the role of the United States and its action or inaction with regards to the kingmakers in both nations -- the military and security services.

It is said the Shah's generals were only to happy to massacre revolting civilians with American connivance. The United States demurred. But the Cold War victor holds similar sway over Egypt today. The United States has effectively bankrolled the military to the tune of $2 billion a year for the past three decades after the signing of the 1979 peace agreement with Israel. That in itself was never popular with the masses and led to the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat by an Islamist soldier. A fitting end for the man who assassinated at point-blank range the finance minister of the last king of Egypt.

In the last two centuries -- which have seen rebellions by the Egyptian people against the Chechen Mamelukes, the Ottoman Turks, the French, and the British -- what we are seeing today resembles most closely events soon after the end of the rule of the discredited King Farouk, who was ousted in a military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952.

A nationalist molded by the two World Wars, he and his cadre of Free Officers -- Sadat included -- took inspiration from the totalitarianism of the age. Newspapers were nationalized, the constitution was suspended, and members of the opposition arrested. That was later followed by wholesale nationalization of companies and industries and the properties of the entrepreneurs who had run them. The spoils went to Nasser's cronies. A foretaste of what was to come occurred in August 1952 when the Revolutionary Command Council crushed with tanks and troops a strike by textile workers in Kafr al Dawwar, near Alexandria.

In 1954 it wasn't Tahrir Square (formerly called Ismailia Square, after the Francophile, modernizing pasha) where the people gathered to demonstrate, but Abdin Square in front of Farouk's former palace. Nasser gave the leaders of those protests only empty promises. Today's demonstrators are right to hold out.

Today, the military mafioso's tentacles extend throughout Egypt, controlling an estimated 40 percent of the economy with senior officers sitting on the boards of major companies. The corrupt patronage of wasta, "who you know," is endemic in Egyptian society with baksheesh, bribes, demanded everywhere. A lowly cab driver will apologetically explain he has to rip you off on the fare so that he can pay the bribe to the petty official who doles out the taxi license. And so up and down the chain it goes. When, soon after the first Gulf War, American officials offered to pay Egypt to conduct military exercises in the desert, the response from the generals was that the United States could to do so gratis but on condition that it sell Egypt more arms -- so they could get a cut. Mubarak's bloodsucking legacy is the grinding poverty that led to the revolt taking place today.

The images of conscript soldiers on television are misleading because they are not the ones who have most to lose in a transition to a civilian government. What has most likely stayed the hand of the military is the U.S. threat to end its billions in aid.

TurksBurnMubarakPoster.jpgAnd so now the United States faces a dilemma reminiscent of the one it confronted in Iran in 1979. It was Nasser's 1954 ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, after assassinations were traced back to them, that scattered its members across the Arab world and inspired radical movements from Syria to Saudi Arabia. But it was Egypt's wider outlawing of any opposition that channeled its people to the mosque, along with disillusionment with the failed national socialism and crony capitalism of the regime, and the defeats by Israel in 1967 and 1973.

Egypt, long a generally conservative society, has become more so. That atavism, combined with a large poor and illiterate demographic, means the Muslim Brotherhood will likely reflect a large swathe of any future democracy. Until recently, when they were forced to stand as independents, they held the most opposition seats in parliament.

On the surface, there now appears to be a strong parallel with Iran in the 1970s, but the history of the Brotherhood, dating back to the 1920s, has been one of fiery rhetoric coupled with backdoor pragmatism. Early on they were quite happy to deal with the palace and the British alike. There's no doubt the United States is talking with them today. Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), it is the latter that is more likely to provide a model for the post-Mubarak era in Egyptian history.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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