MIDDLE EAST II: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Are Western diplomats up to the job?
, March 19, 2011
Although toppled Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was careful to preserve links with the United States, established 40 years ago by his assassinated predecessor Anwar Sadat's non-belligerency deal with Israel, Egypt's record was never one of a loyal ally.
Egypt benefited enormously from its Israel peace accord and Sadat's decision to expel Soviet advisers so as to normalise relations with Washington.
It regained the Sinai Peninsula from Israel, and the subsequent era of US-Egyptian co-operation saw Egypt receive American military aid to the value of $1.3 billion annually.
But did Mubarak draw any closer to the US? Definitely not, says Middle Eastern commentator, Michael Rubin, of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
Rubin argues that Westerners too quickly and uncritically accepted that Mubarak had played a constructive regional role.
He says: "First, the idea that Mubarak was or is a loyal ally - a view echoed across the political spectrum in the wake of the protests - is a myth. Mubarak remained at the forefront of Israel rejectionism, observing the peace treaty with Israel through entropy.
"Egyptian unions expelled not only members who cooperated with Israelis but even those who merely suggested it. State officials, state-owned media, and state-appointed mullahs preach the most virulent anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and, due to Egypt's centrality in the Arab world, have proved crucial to their contagiousness.
"In 1995, Mubarak's flagship daily, Al-Ahram
, accused Israel of spreading the AIDS virus. After a series of shark attacks this past winter, the governor of South Sinai suggested that 'what is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly sharks in the sea to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question'.
"While Egypt participated in the coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, it did so not altruistically but only after the elder President Bush and his European partners agreed to forgive $14 billion in debt. Twelve years later, with the second war against Iraq, Mubarak was even less helpful.
"Not only did Egypt undermine efforts to pressure Saddam to comply with his international commitments, but after Hussein's ouster, the Egyptian government actively worked to undermine reconstruction and acceptance of its new government."
Mubarak couldn't even be relied upon to back the United States on questions unrelated to Middle Eastern affairs. "At the United Nations in 2009, Egypt voted alongside the United States with less frequency than did Burma, Cuba, Somalia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe," Rubin says.
"To use the word ally
to describe Mubarak's Egypt was and is to engage in diplomatic nicety. He was never an enemy, but not being an enemy is not the same as being an ally."
English Middle Eastern affairs observer and acclaimed author, John R. Bradley, a fluent Egyptian Arabic speaker, warns that the flurry of claims that a democratic 'Arabian Spring' will descend upon the Islamic world following Tunisia's turmoil is over-optimistic.
He writes: "When [Britain's prime minister] David Cameron visited Egypt, there were too few signs of the budding liberal democracy which he and other Western leaders had envisioned.
"He could hardly congratulate his host, a former Air Force commander, for what was in effect another military coup. There was no Lech Walesa figure for him to meet, a secular democratic champion of the new Egypt.
"The Muslim Brotherhood remains the only political group of any note."
Bradley says that even foreigners who are apprehensive about Islamists haven't fully grasp their modus operandi
. He warns that Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, "seldom want to take control of the government machine".
He says: "They have little interest in setting tax or energy policy: the influence they seek is cultural totalitarianism. Bereft of sensible, let alone practical, solutions to the real ills that plague their societies, they aim to Islamise society from below."
Rubin says one reason Americans diplomats are so often ill-equipped to discover what is happening on the Arab street is because they invariably speak to the wrong people. Rather than frequenting elite clubs and diplomatic cocktail circuits they should spend more time socialising in the slums and working-class coffee houses.
He observes: "Even though Cairo hosts America's largest embassy after Baghdad, and hundreds of the State Department's most promising Arabic linguists have passed through its language school in Tunis, no diplomat foresaw this revolution.
"This should raise questions about how diplomats do their jobs. Too often American diplomats report on meetings with officials in their host countries."
He caution: "Talk of an 'Arab Spring' for democracy is dangerously premature. An Islamist takeover of the Middle East is just as likely. When the gift of democracy is unwrapped in the Arab world, Islamists frequently spring out of the box."Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.