Yesterday’s Cairo raids on human rights organizations were not an attempt by the Egyptian military to crush Egyptian extremists or to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist party after their recent election victories. They were instead an effort to weaken and demonize centrist and liberal forces. The raids on Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the Adenauer Foundation, and other groups helping Egyptians move toward respect for democratic politics and human rights were of a piece with the practices of Hosni Mubarak—only bolder and more repressive.
In his thirty years in power, Mubarak did not crush the Muslim Brotherhood. He made deals with it, setting for example how many seats it could have in parliament, while crushing the moderate, centrist parties. The Egyptian government refused time after time to allow the establishment of a moderate Islamist party that would have competed with the Brotherhood. And when a non-Islamist named Ayman Nour had the audacity to run against Mubarak in the 2005 elections, he was jailed. The policy during the Mubarak years was to attack and weaken the center, and then tell the Americans and others that the only choice was Mubarak or the Islamist radicals.
Given recent election returns this seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy–and this is the real crime of Hosni Mubarak against his country. I recall vividly meeting with an Egyptian democracy activist at the White House in 2002, when I handled the human rights and democracy portfolio at the Bush NSC. This person surprised me by saying he was not in favor of a free election in Egypt. No, he said, I don’t want a free election tomorrow, I want a free election ten years from tomorrow—if you give us ten years to organize freely. Otherwise, he said, the Brothers will win. That ten years brings us to now, and he was right: these Egyptian elections, after thirty years when Mubarak and the army played footsie with the Brotherhood while attacking the center, have brought the Islamists to victory. And now, as in the Mubarak years, the army will be posing as the only bulwark to radicalism.
In fact the only real bulwark is the work of Egyptians who seek a genuine democracy that respects human rights. We may not be able to stop the army from attacking them, just as yesterday it attacked American and European groups helping promote democracy and human rights in Egypt. But we should not pay for it. It is ludicrous to listen to army and other government spokesmen inveigh against dark forces who take money from foreigners—when the army takes $1.3 billion every year from the United States. Those payments should be suspended right now, and not resumed until everything seized in the raids is returned and we get promises from the military that these raids will not be repeated.
The Egyptian military plays positive and negative roles in Egypt, but the most significant single thing it did under Mubarak was to guarantee an Islamist victory once he left the scene. Mubarakism was a system that perpetuated military rule and American aid by arguing that the military was the only alternative to the Brotherhood (and groups worse than the Brotherhood) while in fact it created perfect conditions for the Islamists to thrive. We now see the result of those decades of repression and we should reject the invitation to continue the Mubarak system, this time with a collective military leadership replacing the dictator. The struggle for democracy and human rights in Egypt will be long and hard and we cannot determine the outcome, but we must at the very least let all Egyptians know which side we are on. For now, we must let the army know that if it is their policy to crush democracy activists, there is a price they will pay. It’s $1.3 billion a year.