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U.S.-EGYPT: Neo-Cons Split on Mubarak

Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Feb 3 2011 (IPS) - The ongoing crisis in Egypt has resulted in a rare split among U.S. hawks, as some leading neo-conservatives have called for Washington to help oust President Hosni Mubarak, while others have joined the Israeli government in quietly supporting Egyptian leader against protesters calling for his ouster.

In part, the disagreement may indicate that the neo- conservative “democracy promotion” agenda has diverged from the Israeli government’s desire for a stable and largely co- operative ally on its border. Yet neo-conservatives themselves have been split over how to respond to Egypt, reflecting the movement’s ambivalent relationship to democracy promotion over the course of its history.

Since the anti-Mubarak protests began Jan. 25, reactions here have played out largely according to script. Foreign- policy liberals and leftists in the U.S. have been overwhelmingly supportive of the protesters, while mainstream media have been broadly sympathetic to them and hostile to Mubarak.

In Israel, by contrast, the possible end of Mubarak’s three- decade rule has been met with a sense of foreboding, if not outright dread. Many Israelis seem to feel that if Mubarak falls, “it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, takes power,” as Israeli commentator Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in Wednesday’s New York Times.

“In a state of chaos, an organised Islamic group can take over a country,” noted Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Monday. “It has happened. It happened in Iran,” he noted in a refrain that has been much repeated by many U.S. neo-conservatives, as well as other leaders of the so-called “Israel lobby”, with which neo-conservatives are usually closely associated, over the past week.

The fear is that an Egyptian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood might go so far as to renounce Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a pillar of Israeli regional security strategy.

Although many Egypt experts discount the Brotherhood’s ability to dominate a successor regime, or seriously threaten Israel militarily even if it did so, they agree that any government emerging from truly free and fair elections would almost certainly be less cooperative with Israeli security policies – such as enforcing the blockade of the Gaza Strip – than Mubarak has been.

For that reason, the Netanyahu government has been quietly supporting Mubarak against the protesters and urging Washington against taking any action that would weaken him – or his new vice president, Gen. Omar Soleiman, who, as Mubarak’s intelligence chief, has been the president’s key interlocutor with Israel for years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many pro-Israel groups in the U.S. have been similarly wary of the protesters and supportive of Mubarak. For instance, earlier this week Malcolm Hoenlein, the influential vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, denounced the leading Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei as a “stooge of Iran”.

More surprisingly, however, many U.S. neo-conservatives – who have typically been close allies of the Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party – have broken with Israel by calling for Mubarak to step down, and even gone so far as to scold Israelis for short-sightedness.

Elliott Abrams, the former top Middle East aide in the George W. Bush administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), wrote on Tuesday that the Israeli reaction to the current crisis “shows a deep misunderstanding of the situation in Egypt.”

Others, such as Abrams’s CFR colleague Max Boot, suggested that the split refutes those critics of the neo- conservatives who have accused them of doing Israel’s bidding. “[M]ost Israelis fall firmly into the realpolitik camp,” he wrote on Tuesday, in stark contrast to neo- conservatives who claim they are chiefly motivated by their “idealistic” desire to spread democracy and liberal values.

But while some commentators heralded a stark disagreement between neo-conservative and Israeli goals, the actual reaction among neo-conservatives has been more mixed and ambiguous, and many have been more supportive of Mubarak than Abrams and Boot.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for instance, described Mubarak’s regime as “fairly benign,” and has suggested that Washington’s “ultimate objective” must be to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. The clear implication was that another Mubarak-style strongman, such as Soleiman, would be preferable to a popularly elected Islamist government or even a secular one that included Islamists.

“The U.S. should make clear in an unambiguous way that a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt is a danger to American interests and could even lead to American intervention,” David Wurmser, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s senior Middle East adviser, told the “Forward”, the largest- circulation Jewish weekly, Thursday.

This ambivalence among neo-conservatives over Egypt may reflect a deeper ambivalence over democracy promotion. Both neo-conservatives and their critics often portray democracy promotion as the central tenet of the movement, but the historical record undercuts this portrayal.

The early tone of the movement regarding foreign policy was set by Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which argued for supporting “friendly” authoritarian governments against their left-wing enemies. Kirkpatrick’s vision helped guide neo-conservative foreign policy throughout the 1980s, when neo-conservatives – notably including Elliott Abrams – helped prop up or defend military dictatorships throughout Latin America, and even apartheid South Africa, as Cold War allies against the Soviet Union.

While the movement became more explicitly committed to democracy promotion in recent decades, its democratisation efforts have unsurprisingly been far more focused on hostile, rather than friendly, regimes – left-wing governments during the Cold War; more recently, governments that are seen as antagonistic to either the U.S. or Israel.

When elections have brought enemies rather than allies into power – as occurred in 2006 when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections – neo-conservatives have been among the first to call for punitive actions.

Thus, when John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the UN, cited Jeane Kirkpatrick in a Thursday interview with Politico to argue that the U.S. should support Mubarak, he could stake a claim to being as much the legitimate heir of neo-conservatism as the anti-Mubarak neo-conservatives themselves.

The uncertainty about what might follow Mubarak complicates matters further. Few of the neo-conservatives who have called for Mubarak’s resignation have discussed what sort of government they would consider an acceptable replacement.

The key question, still largely unanswered, is whether they would accept a democratically elected Egyptian government that included the Muslim Brotherhood, or whether they would respond to such a scenario by backing another Mubarak-style secular autocrat.

In the latter case, the current disagreement between U.S. neo-conservatives and Israeli hawks would likely be remembered as merely a brief spat in an otherwise harmonious relationship.

*Jim Lobe contributed to this article.

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