Long gone are Egypt's revolutionary days of the 1950-60s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser dominated Middle Eastern politics by stirring the Arabic-speaking masses, forming unions with other countries, starting wars, exporting ideologies and songs, and deftly maneuvering between superpowers. So too have the hopes of the 1970s vanished – Anwar El-Sadat's economic opening, American alliance, and a peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt's turbulence of the prior thirty years wound down when Hosni Mubarak ascended to office in 1981. His rule began on a positive and calming note. I dubbed him "Mayor of Egypt" in tribute to his focus on traffic flyovers and other infrastructure, rather than on grand gestures of war and peace.
But the mayor morphed over time into a would-be pharaoh. His ego expanded and his repression increased. Stagnation settled in. Dynastic ambitions took hold. If Mubarak's rule never reached the depths of misery to be found in nearby countries such as Syria and Iraq, it was awful enough, with a nearly ubiquitous surveillance and too much police brutality.
Americans recoiled from this tyranny but what Franklin D. Roosevelt memorably was quoted saying about a Latin America dictator, "He's a bastard but he's our bastard," also applied to Mubarak. When American policymakers looked over the abyss and into Egyptian public opinion, the hostility they saw among Nasserists and Islamists made Mubarak look good.
And so, as the decades wore on, Washington stood by Mubarak, supplying him with hefty sums of aid, opening the military cupboard for him to build a superfluous conventional force (there is a peace treaty with Israel; neither Sudan nor Libya remotely pose a threat). In return, he adhered to a set of policies not too obnoxious to Americans.
All observers agreed that Mubarak's demise would release pressure-cooker style forces; the street disturbances that culminated in his resignation today came as an early surprise. But the effect is roughly the same, to send the country into uncharted waters after decades of idleness. As someone who enjoyed Egyptian hospitality for three years, I wish the country well but worry deeply for it and the damage it can do. (February 11, 2011)