What if Mubarak Holds On?

Threatened and isolated, Egypt could become a dangerous pariah


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow the U.S. began actively seeking exactly one week after deploying Vice President Joe Biden to publicly defend him, is not the first national leader to lose U.S. patronage. Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos alienated Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan with years of brutal rule. Indonesia's Suharto, Zaire's Mobutu Seko, and others found that the Americans stopped returning their calls once there was no more Soviet Union against which they could act as bulwarks. Perhaps most famously, South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem ended up in the back of a military personnel carrier where he and his brother were shot, stabbed, and photographed as part of a sudden and U.S.-approved military coup. In all of these cases, the client leaders fell without their patron. But Mubarak, of whose rule U.S. support has been a pillar for 29 years, could yet cling to power. If he does, it's impossible to know how he will behave, but the rapidly changing internal and external pressures are likely to transform his foreign and domestic policies, and probably not for the better.

The Obama administration, by first calling for Mubarak's "immediate transition" and then working with the Egyptian military to make that happen, has gone from the Egyptian president's most important foreign ally to his greatest threat. If Mubarak holds on, he will reemerge into a diplomatic climate nearly the polar opposite of what it was only a week ago. Many in the U.S. and Israel are rightly concerned about where the Muslim Brotherhood, were it to come to power in a post-Mubarak democracy, would steer Egyptian foreign policy. But Mubarak, for whom the U.S. now poses a direct and possibly mortal threat, is virtually guaranteed to move away from the pro-U.S., pro-Israel policies that have been so central to his leadership.

If anything, Mubarak will be tempted to seek out other pariah states and anti-U.S. actors -- fortunately for him, the Middle East has a few -- to help him bolster against the West's efforts for his removal. Mubarak could look to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is working to suppress the country's own protest movement, which he is likely concerned the U.S. might support if it comes close to his ouster. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has shown some support for the Egyptian protesters, calling them an "Islamic uprising" in the unlikely hope that's what they will become. But if Mubarak holds on, some sort of Egypt-Iran partnership could serve the security and economic of both states. If Israel starts to look like a threat, Mubarak could push back by opening its border with Gaza, making it easier for groups such as Hamas to import whatever supplies it might be seeking.

Internally, Mubarak has transformed much of Egypt into a police state -- or a total police vacuum -- over the past week. If he can survive the ongoing protests, he will likely tighten the country's already severe restrictions in an attempt to prevent future uprisings. As the Muslim Brotherhood has learned in its gestures at political activism over the years, the more successful Mubarak's opponents become, the more likely they are to find themselves in prison, or worse. There's no way Mubarak's secret police could possibly round up every one of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who've marched in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and elsewhere, but anyone who managed to distinguish themselves will be a target.

Egypt's Islamist activists, who -- though often anti-Israeli --  have been among the region's least radical or violent, will face a daunting choice if this Muslim Brotherhood-supported uprising fails. Do these activists continue to support the brotherhood's within-system efforts at reform, which are peaceful but have continually failed? Or will they be tempted to consider a more violent approach? The latter wouldn't necessarily mean terrorism, of course; and there are many levels of gradation between a political party such as Muslim Brotherhood and an all-out jihadist group such as al-Qaeda. But people can only get shot at by secret police so many times before they're likely to start shooting back.

It's seems clear that the best possible outcome for Egypt, the Middle East, and the U.S. is for Mubarak to leave power as soon as possible. The Obama administration looks to be doing all it can to responsibly make this happen. But there's a chance that Egypt's president could hold on for a 30th year of rule. It's impossible to predict what that year would look like, especially because there are so few examples of the U.S. turning so rapidly and sharply against a client leader. The most plausible analogy is also the scariest: Saddam Hussein. After decades of U.S. support as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, and then against Iran, the first Bush administration abruptly turned on Saddam after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Saddam's Iraq had never behaved in a particularly responsible way, but its overnight transition from U.S. client to U.S. enemy helped create one of the most threatening pariah states on Earth. Mubarak is not Saddam Hussein, whose rule was defined as much by his own insanity as by geopolitics, but the Iraqi despot's example offers an important warning. The U.S. has created an enemy where it once had an ally; the stakes of Mubarak's grip on power are higher, and more worrisome, than ever.

Photo: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on January 28, 1990, six months before Iraq would invade Kuwait. By Mona Sharaf/AFP/Getty