Open revolts in four Muslim countries may wreak havoc on U.S. interests in the Middle East; two pro-American, secular leaders have fallen and two more stand at the precipice. We stood at the sidelines as a Hezbollah-led coup overthrew Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri and as street demonstrations ended the regime of Tunisian President Ben Ali. Now, Mubarak’s Egypt and Saleh’s Yemen face massive protests, and Egypt teeters at the brink of collapse. Our leaders have no strategy for the days to come; the consensus developing in Washington seems to be “wait and see” with a dash of “hope and pray.”
It’s unclear what exactly these revolts represent: some see a popular revolt against autocracy and inequality, while others see an Islamist uprising. Many commentators have pointed out that three of the four challenged leaders — Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh — have ruled as strongmen for decades without notable domestic reforms, equitable economic growth or liberalization. According to this narrative, their virtues have been few, and so disaffected moderates have begun street protests.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely we are witnessing a centrist revolt against a dictatorial status quo. Some protests may have begun as such, but in each country with demonstrations, radical Islamic groups stand to gain the most from regime change. In Lebanon, the relatively competent democrat Saad Hariri was overthrown by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, a radical Islamic terrorist group. In Tunisia, the resignation of the dictator Ben Ali was followed immediately by the return of leading Islamists from exile. In this context, the revolts in Egypt — the largest Arab state and controller of the Suez Canal — should be treated as a matter of concern.
Many who object to this conclusion will point to the protest movement’s Nobel peace-prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as evidence that a liberal reformist government can rise if Mubarak falls. They will note that the Muslim Brotherhood — the radical, Islamist terrorist group, Egypt’s strongest opposition party — did not instigate the first protests in Cairo.
However, such optimism is hardly warranted: though the protests began with moderates, the Muslim Brotherhood has already begun co-opting the protest movement. After prayer on Friday, religious protesters turned out in force in a organized show of support for theocratic government.
Unfortunately, the only well-organized political groups in Egypt are the now-unpopular party of Mubarak, the independent military leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood. The initial protests lacked effective leadership, and respected moderate ElBaradei lacks a widespread base. Religious extremists united under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood are well-organized in countless mosques in every neighborhood.
As demonstrations continue, Mubarak increasingly resembles the Shah of Iran in his final days. The people are in the streets, including a mix of moderate cosmopolitans and radical Islamists; the army has been deployed to suppress the revolts; and the regime will fall like a house of cards if a single army brigade in the capital sympathizes≠≠ with the protesters. The most telling parallel is the distribution of the opposition: 1979 Iran was a place where not all activists were Islamist, but revolution led to purges of non-Islamist thinkers. In Egypt, many of the protesters are centrist members of the middle class rather than Islamists — and thus, will cease to be useful to the Muslim Brotherhood the moment Mubarak falls.
Given the likelihood that the protests will lead to Islamist takeover, Americans must fear the fall of Mubarak. He has done little to benefit ordinary Egyptians, and thus has little hope of recapturing legitimacy; if his regime survives, it will be because the military stood with him lock, stock and barrel. His hold on power depends on using the army to repress the people rather than regaining their support. Americans are left in the awkward position of hoping an autocrat succeeds in suppressing popular protests. Such cold-blood realpolitik may be hard to swallow, but if the largest Arab country falls to Islamism, the consequence could be a disaster greater than the rise of the Iranian theocracy.
Trevor Wagener is a senior in Pierson College.