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Sunday
Dec282008

Four scary words: Egypt after Hosni Mubarak

Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak's "emergency rule" is deep into its third decade, with modernizing son Gamal teed up as the pharaoh-in-waiting. While Gamal's efforts to open up Egypt's state-heavy economy have progressed nicely the past few years, so has Mubarak the Elder's repression of all political opponents, yielding the Arab world's most ardent impression of the Chinese model of development.

But with the global recession now reaching down deeply into emerging markets, serious cracks emerge in the Mubarak regime's facade. Unemployment is - unofficially - somewhere north of 30 percent. Worse, it's highly concentrated among youth, whose demographic bulge currently generates 800,000 new job seekers every year.

Ask young Egyptian men, as I did repeatedly on a trip, what their biggest worry is, and they'll tell you it's the inability to find a job that earns enough to enable marriage - a terrible sign in a society becoming more religiously conservative.

At 83, Hosni Mubarak is an unhealthy dictator who's achieved a stranglehold on virtually every aspect of Egyptian life, creating an immense undercurrent of popular resentment. While Washington focuses on Iran's reach for nukes and its upcoming presidential election, Egypt is more likely to be plunged into domestic political crisis on President-Elect Barack Obama's watch.

That's the bold prediction offered by journalist Aladdin Elaasar in his new book, "The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Volatile Middle East." Elaasar argues that American policymakers could soon face the same tough choice on Egypt that they once suffered with Iran's faltering Shah: Step in with maximum effort during a succession crisis or let the chips fall where they may.

Since Cairo recognized Israel's right to exist in 1979, Washington has poured more than $50 billion into the regime's coffers, with more than half coming in military aid. As Israel remains diplomatically isolated and strategically vulnerable in the region, it seems that America has bought Egypt's stability and little else.

But now, as the United States pays more attention to the spread of radical Islam into Africa, thanks to its new military Africa Command, the specter of an unstable Egypt abutting the already highly unstable and violent Horn of Africa (e.g., Sudan, Somalia) looms larger in our near-term worries.

Why?

Egypt has a long history of exporting its radicals, much like Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim Brotherhood, forerunner to al-Qaida, stands as Mubarak's strongest nongovernmental foe. Like Palestine's Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood has made a serious effort at providing baseline social services to a disgruntled population of 80-plus million that typically receives the slimmest of safety nets from a government more interested in political order than social justice.

With the deteriorating Afghanistan-Pakistan situation, there are plenty of interested regional and extra-regional great powers capable of aiding U.S. efforts at stabilization, given the right socialization of the problem by the new Obama administration. But it's unclear which great powers would help out on Egypt, meaning, if Gamal fails the succession test, our incoming president will likely face the choice of allowing a military dictatorship to emerge or risk the country's descent into radicalization.

Banned in Egypt, Elaasar's book raises troubling questions about U.S. policy toward the world's largest Arab state. Washington's soft peddling of democracy hasn't moved the highly corrupt government toward any serious political reform, as the Mubaraks prefer Beijing's blueprint over anything we might offer. And, as the regime resorts to stoking anti-Western and anti-Semitic popular sentiment, it gets harder to imagine a path forward for U.S.-Egyptian relations as this global recession advances.

All I can say, Mr. President-Elect, is that when you decide which major Islamic capital will be the venue for your much-anticipated address to the Muslim world, do yourself a favor and pass on restive Cairo, because you just might trigger more response than your administration can afford right now.

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