America loves a good dictator; at least when it comes to the strategic installation of one. The problem with dictators is the inevitable egos they develop when left unchecked for too long. It never fails. You help them overthrow the current regime and teach them how to put down insurrections, muzzle the media and detain dissidents until, eventually, they start believing their own propaganda and forget who put them there.
Dictators are the teenagers of world leaders.
Extracting a dictator we have supported or even installed can be such a hassle. But we generally have a very good reason to do so: oil. This is why what is happening in Cairo right now is so perplexing to the U.S. government. Because we don’t covet their oil fields, we have no direct role in what is transpiring there and therefore no underlying reason to choose sides. If we don’t support a democratic uprising, our hypocrisy as the purveyor of global democracy is revealed. Yet, taking the side of the protestors makes Uncle Sam look like a fair-weather friend to Hosni Mubarak, whom we have supported for decades.
As dictators go, Mubarak has always operated on the margins. Since he came to power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s greatest achievement has been maintaining his control. And he has done so through brutal authoritarian rule. Egypt has been a place where people can speak their minds but not raise their arms. This false sense of freedom has kept serious, regime-threatening uprisings at abeyance and given the impression to the world that Egyptians are, for the most part, politically apathetic. Until now.
Strategically, Egypt has been of little economic import to the United States in terms of natural resources. And because Egyptians lack the incredible oil wealth of some of their neighbors, they have a slightly more egalitarian distribution of wealth. This is not to say Egypt has a healthy economy. It certainly doesn’t. But it also lacks a wealthy ruling class of oil barons masquerading as governing leaders. Mubarak has never had the resources to hold power, fund extremists and militarize in the way Iraq, Iran and Libya have done so effectively to the detriment of our interests, and so he’s made Egypt and us strange and convenient bedfellows.
In return for our financial support, Egypt has been an important partner in the balance of power in the Arab world. We have given healthy financial support to Egypt throughout Mubarak’s regime to essentially maintain the political status quo; the geographic importance of Egypt—its proximity to Israel and the strategic significance of the Suez Canal—isn’t lost on anyone.
That this is a true democratic uprising, inspired in large part by the recent revolution in Tunisia, places the Unites States in the odd position of spectator. But our egocentricity coaxes us to project our role in the unfolding drama.
Unfortunately, we may have outwitted ourselves by waging two oil wars in the region while tolerating authoritarian rule among our so-called allies. The conundrum in the U.S. is how the conservative hawks, who long argued that our military actions in the Middle East were essential to spreading democracy, handle this situation.
During his presidency, George W. Bush was emboldened enough by his perceived military success abroad that he even pressed Mubarak to accept the coming wave of democracy our wars were ushering into the Middle East. In many ways Bush was prescient and his vision of spreading democracy through might—the ends justify the means—has taken hold in Tunisia and Egypt. No one really saw this coming or believed it possible. No one that is, except for George W. Bush. Our actions in the region have awakened many people in the Middle East who are staking their lives on self-determination and democracy. What we missed is that the leaders of the change view themselves as true radicals and revolutionaries in the spirit of those who founded our own nation and fought tyranny from abroad; but their end-game is very different.
A democratic Egypt would allow for political representation by Islamic fundamentalists who see democracy as the vehicle toward Islamic rule of law. This concept is counter-intuitive to Americans who regard democracy as the goal the uncivilized world truly seeks—whether they realize it or not. But amidst what is viewed as a secular revolt against a harsh regime are highly-educated, devout Muslims who are strongly anti-Semitic and believe that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are largely mythical American inventions that allow the United States to wage war for the purpose of stealing Mideast oil.
Our hunger for war over the past decade is costing us in ways yet to be calculated. In one sense we’re witnessing bloody, yet beautiful democracy unfolding in a manner reminiscent of our own revolution. But we have to realize that our policies and our blood money propped up the very dictatorship the Egyptian people want to dismantle. They see democracy not as the end in itself, but the means to electing a body of officials who would have us banished from the region and our closest ally removed from the map entirely.
Former President George W. Bush has often said he will be vindicated by history. He may already be right. Democracy is infectious. But if our “end” is simply another culture’s “means”, history may indeed vindicate Bush, but only tragically so.