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Q & A with… Lee Smith

Lee Smith

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Feb. 15, Middle East expert Lee Smith briefed reporters on recent events in Egypt – and what impact they are likely to have on that region of the world, the U.S. and, perhaps most importantly, the peace treaty – via a conference call hosted by JINSA (The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs).  A senior editor at “The Weekly Standard,” Smith is the author of the highly acclaimed and provocative book “The Strong Horse: Power Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations” (Doubleday, Jan. 2011) in which he overturns long-held Western myths and assumptions about the Arab world, offering advice for America’s future success in the region. A visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, Smith lives in Washington, D.C.
Here is what Smith had to say.
On Mubarak’s departure

One of the things that truly astonishes me is that no one seems to get the fact that what we watched here over the last few weeks is a military coup – not a revolution driven by social networking tools, as the press has characterized it.  What I mean by that is, if you’ve been observing the last five years the key issue in Egypt has been one of succession:  That is, who is going to replace Hosni Mubarek.  The two key candidates were always Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal and Omar Suleiman, the chief of intelligence whom Mubarak named a few weeks ago to be his vice president. We’ll see what happens to Suleiman, but right now the government is in the hands of the Supreme Council of the military. Field Marshal [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi appears to have effective control of the county.
Keep in mind that what we’re looking at here is a Free Officers regime; a military regime – it’s the same regime that in the 1952 coup headed by [Gamal Abdel] Nasser deposed King Farouk.  Then came Anwar Sadat who was also a Free Officer. Sadat picked as his vice president Hosni Mubarak who had been the head of the air force and was a war hero. The military regime was against Gamal Mubarak succeeding Hosni Mubarak – first of all, because he was not a part of the military establishment. He never served in uniform; he never fought in a war. The problem was, Hosni Mubarak was the man in a suit and tie at the head of a military regime. He was the public face of a military regime. When he forgot that his was a military regime and not a family dynasty, that’s when he got in trouble with the military. So, over the last few weeks the military took advantage of what was happening on the streets and essentially let the popular will usher out Gamal Mubarak.  Something that they wanted all along.
I believe that the military were content to let Hosni Mubarak stay in power until after the September elections, as he planned. But there was both foreign pressure – especially from Washington – and, more especially, pressure from the people on the street. So, I’m not discounting by any means the popular unrest. Unrest destabilizes the country and it made the military very nervous. At a certain point they realized that the only way to get the people off the street was to have Mubarak leave office. Which is where we are today.
This is what happened in Tunisia as well.  Again this was not a popular Twitter- driven revolution though many people would like to believe that.  In Tunisia, the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was marked by corruption.  The family was rotten to the core and they basically bled the officers’ retirement fund dry.  So when people took to the streets in Tunisian cities, the military said to Ben Ali we’re not going anywhere. You are leaving. And they replaced him.

On the danger ahead

Now that the Supreme Military Council is in charge of the country, the danger is that they may come to enjoy being directly in control – not through an intermediary the way they were with Mubarak. So the [Obama] administration is anxious to have the military move on to the promised round of elections; i.e., presidential elections, elections to put in place a new parliament and to ratify a new constitution.   However, it’s unclear how quickly this is going to move. It’s hard to believe this is all going to be done in six months. Of course, the military council has warned that maybe it’s not going to happen in six months – maybe it will happen, they say, “when we’re ready.” So this is one concern.
Another concern is that the engine of regime unrest is always junior officers in the military. The danger is that the longer the senior officers are in charge, the more likely it is that a junior officer revolt is in the offing, just like in 1952 when Nasser and his colleagues overthrew the monarchy.
So, in some ways we’d like to move to elections as quickly as possible. One of the problems of moving quickly for the U.S. is that we’re looking at people that we would be most interested in if we want to see a military regime reform itself into a more liberal government responsive to the needs of its people. It’s very difficult to tell right now who is in place to do that.

On the Muslim Brotherhood

Right now I don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood of enormous concern.  I think certainly the Brotherhood will become a concern – but, again, I think right now the main issue is the military and junior members of the military who may or may not be aligned with certain Islamist factions. I think the Brotherhood is going to be a problem over the long term. Don’t believe it when people talk about the moderate nature of the Brotherhood – this is a misreading of what the Brotherhood wants and what the Brotherhood thinks.
President Obama and others have said that it’s very unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood would win in a large round of elections because the Egyptians want moderate, secular representatives in their government; unfortunately, we just don’t know this. When people say that Egyptians have seen the problems of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and they want nothing like the IRI in Egypt.  Well, the Palestinians saw the same thing but nonetheless they elected Hamas in that round of elections. More significantly, if you look at Lebanon, the last people you would suspect would ever want to be aligned with the Islamic republic of Iran – besides the Jews of Israel – would be Lebanon’s Christian community. Nonetheless, 30 percent of Lebanon’s Christian community are aligned with the Iranians through their leader’s alliance with Hezbollah. The notion that 30 percent of Lebanon’s Christians are tied to an Islamist regime is frightening. What this says is there are all sorts of ways the Muslim Brotherhood can get power and it doesn’t necessarily get power because the people want an Islamist regime.
What is not well understood by outsiders is that the Muslim Brotherhood is an integral part of Egyptian modernity. Its influence historically is tremendous. It is inseparable from political modernity in Egypt. The notion that this local movement will not gain power in Egypt seems to me to be ridiculous. The only way that would happen is if they’re repressed by the regime, which may very well happen.

On the peace treaty

A very significant issue is the peace treaty. It was under-reported, but there was certainly an anti-American and anti-Israeli current in the protests. Though it was certainly not the main current, it did exist; no doubt about it.  However the American press was eager to underplay it.  Many Arabs despise the U.S. not only because of our support for Israel but because of our support for repressive Arab regimes. A lot of Egyptians were furious that we supported the Mubarak regime.
More importantly, people were protesting specifically against what we might call “Mubarakism,” 30 years of this ruling regime’s corruption. The power, prerogatives and privileges that came to this group were all underwritten by the peace treaty. It’s not just the $1.3 billion dollars per year in military aid that comes to Egypt every year and that underwrites the retirement nest of senior officers of the military, it’s the fact that everything that’s come out of this has created a political, business and military elite.  If I were an Egyptian patriot – even if I didn’t want war with Israel, had visited Israel and even loved Israel – I would have to say: “This peace treaty is a real problem because over the last thirty years it is the glue that has empowered this ruling elite. So, we need to look at this peace treaty again and see if it’s in Egyptian interests.”
The peace treaty is going to be an issue. The Egyptian military has assured both Jerusalem and Washington that it intends to abide by the terms of the treaty and this is an important thing – but the fact is the peace treaty was the central plank of what we can call Mubarakism.  I’m not saying the Americans wanted the deal to be corrupt, but corruption in Egypt is a key political institution. When people look at this they will see a ruling regime that came to power on this particular brand of corruption – all this corruption associated with the peace treaty. That’s the domestic dynamic.
Then, of course, there is the international dynamic: if we look at the last time Egypt fought in 1973 we had an intra-Arab dynamic. By which I mean, Syria, Iraq Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Because Camp David took Egypt out of the war that Arab dynamic changed. What we have instead now is a regional dynamic that consists mostly of Iran and Turkey. We need to see if Egypt is going to want to compete in that regional dynamic; how much will their hand be forced?  Will they be compelled to compete? We don’t know if the Iranians will try to challenge the Egyptians. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if they did. We just don’t know what’s going to happen

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