US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of support for Mubarak’s chosen successor – former Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman – risks throwing away any prospect of real democratisation in Egypt and the pro-democracy protesters being jailed and tortured one by one as they return home if protests start to grow smaller (1). The fact that this will happen away from the television cameras will not make it any less horrific than the televised attacks and injuries we have seen recently.
A change of who is heading the regime is not a change of regime. Former Bush (senior) administration member Peter Galbraith has written of being told by the US National Security Council at the end of the 1991 Iraq war that “Our aim is to get rid of Saddam, not his regime” (2). It looks depressingly like the Obama administration has the same position on Egypt, though I hope they prove me wrong on this and make US aid to the Egyptian government conditional on an end to the banning of opposition parties and to the jailing and torture of government opponents.
This is especially sad as the Obama administration’s position before this had moved from support for Mubarak towards greater support for the demonstrators – and this certainly seemed to help prevent Egyptian military attacks on protesters and to help end the attacks by plain clothes police and hired mobs on them.
Failing to back the pro-democracy protesters will also weaken moderates who want a transition to democracy and strengthen the arguments of extremists who see force as the only way to overthrow the dictatorship – making a Sunni version of the Iranian revolution and a government deeply hostile to the US more likely in the long run.
The arguments for backing the dictatorship are empty – even an Islamic state like Iran couldn’t be any more brutal than Mubarak’s (and Sulieman’s) police torturers; no Arab state will go to war with an Israeli military so much stronger than them that it could swat them all simultaneously like flies; there are plenty of democrats among the protesters and every possibility of a transition to democracy.
As the US ambassador to Egypt wrote in 2006 ‘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 [Muslim Brotherhood]’ (3)
The US government should not be backing Suleiman but the National Unity government of all opposition parties proposed by ElBaradei and the protesters to organise free and fair elections. Even a compromise involving some of the more progressive members of Mubarak’s NDP party along with all opposition parties would be a big step forward and ensure the NDP could not have the pro-democracy protesters arrested one by one.
(1) = Guardian.co.uk 06 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt protests: Hosni Mubarak's power fades as US backs his deputy’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/06/egypt-protests-hosni-mubarak-sulieman
(2) = Galbraith, Peter W. (2006) ‘The End of Iraq’, Pocket Books, 2007, Ch4, page 46
(3) = Guardian.co.uk 06 Feb 2011 ‘WikiLeaks cables: Egypt's Omar Suleiman demonised Muslim Brotherhood’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/feb/06/wikileaks-egypt-omar-suleiman-muslim-brotherhood