Without Mubarak: Would World Trade Center Still Be Standing?

It’s interesting and disappointing to me how little I actually know about world history and even about the context of many events that have happened in other countries during my lifetime. I expect that’s true of many — most? — Americans. And hey. I guess that’s another reason why journalism still matters: the first cut at history.

And it looks like we are about to watch the collapse in Egypt of a government and a leader that Uncle Sam has supported politically and financially for three decades. Wow. How did that happen? Consider that a week ago we were collectively fretting over the fact that Michele Bachmann couldn’t see eye-to-eye with a video recorder following Date Night in Congress.

Was it the great American philosopher Forrest Gump who opined that “shit happens.”

Well, I wonder what doo-doo we are about to step in as Mukarak considers his retirement options and relocation sites. (See WaPo, “On Mubarak, U.S. charts a delicate course.”)

Anyway, of the articles and commentary I have read and heard during the past few days about events in Egypt and the Middle East, here’s one that got my attention. It’s a NYT op-ed by Ross Douthat, “The Devil We Know.” Here’s an excerpt:

As the world ponders the fate of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak, Americans should ponder this: It’s quite possible that if Mubarak had not ruled Egypt as a dictator for the last 30 years, the World Trade Center would still be standing.

This is true even though Mubarak’s regime has been a steadfast U.S. ally, a partner in our counterterrorism efforts and a foe of Islamic radicalism. Or, more aptly, it’s true because his regime has been all of these things.

In “The Looming Tower,” his history of Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright raises the possibility that “America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt.” By visiting imprisonment, torture and exile upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak foreclosed any possibility of an Islamic revolution in his own country. But he also helped radicalize and internationalize his country’s Islamists, pushing men like Ayman Al-ZawahiriOsama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, and arguably the real brains behind Al Qaeda — out of Egyptian politics and into the global jihad.

At the same time, Mubarak’s relationship with Washington has offered constant vindication for the jihadi worldview. Under his rule, Egypt received more American dollars than any country besides Israel. For many young Egyptians, restless amid political and economic stagnation, it’s been a short leap from hating their dictator to hating his patrons in the United States. One of the men who made this leap was an architecture student named Mohamed Atta, who was at the cockpit when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center.

These sound like good reasons to welcome Mubarak’s potential overthrow, and the end to America’s decades-long entanglement with his drab, repressive regime. Unfortunately, Middle Eastern politics is never quite that easy. The United States supported Mubarak for so long because of two interrelated fears: the fear of another Khomeini and the fear of another Nasser. Both anxieties remain entirely legitimate today.

I guess we’ll see how this plays out in the next few days and months. But I’m not sure we can take it for granted that when Mubarak steps down leaders of an American-style democracy will step up.

So we better keep a close eye on things — because shit happens.

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