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Egypt a Ticking Time Bomb

The Arab world’s leading nation has become a political and cultural backwater — and that’s not good

As battered air travelers struggle to recover from Iceland's volcanic big bang, another explosion is building up.

This time, it's a political one that could rock the entire Mideast, where rumors of war involving the U.S., Syria, Israel and Iran are intensifying.

President Hosni Mubarak, the U.S.-supported strongman who has ruled Egypt with an iron hand for almost 30 years, is 81 and in frail health. He has no designated successor.

Mubarak, a general, was put into power with U.S. help after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by nationalist soldiers. Sadat had been a CIA "asset" since 1952.

Egypt, with 82 million people, is the most populous and important Arab nation and Cairo the cultural center of the Arab world. It is also an overcrowded madhouse with eight million people whose population has tripled since I lived there as a boy.

Not counting North Africa, one in three Arabs is Egyptian.

Egypt was once the heart and soul of the Arab and Muslim world. Under Sadat's predecessor, the widely adored nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt led the Arab world. Egyptians despised Sadat as a corrupt western toady and sullenly accepted Mubarak.

After three decades under Mubarak, Egypt has become a political and cultural backwater. In a telling incident, Mubarak recently flew to Germany for gall bladder and colon surgery. After billions in U.S. aid, Mubarak could not even trust a local hospital in the Arab world's leading nation.

The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in military aid to keep the generals content and about $700 million in economic aid, not counting secret CIA stipends, and vast amounts of low-cost wheat.

Mubarak's Egypt is the cornerstone of America's Mideast Raj (dominion). Egypt's 469,000-man armed forces, 397,000 paramilitary police and ferocious secret police keep the regime in power and crush all dissent.

Though large, Egypt's military is starved by Washington of modern weapons, ammo and spare parts so it cannot wage war against Israel. Its sole function is keeping the U.S.-backed regime in power.

Mubarak has long been a key ally of Israel in battling Islamist and nationalist groups. Egypt and Israel collaborate on penning up Hamas-led Palestinians in Gaza.

Egypt is now building a new steel wall on the Gaza border with U.S. assistance. Mubarak's Wall, which will go down 12 meters, is designed to block tunnels through which Gaza Palestinians rely for supplies.

While Washington fulminates against Iran and China over human rights, it says nothing about client Egypt - where all elections are rigged, regime opponents brutally tortured and political opposition liquidated.

Washington could quickly impose real democracy to Egypt where it pulls all the strings, if it wanted.

Ayman Nour, the last man who dared run in an election against the eternal Mubarak - "pharaoh" to Islamist opponents - was arrested and tortured.

Now, as Mubarak's health fails, the U.S. and Israel are increasingly alarmed his death could produce a political eruption in long-repressed Egypt.

Mubarak has been trying to groom his son, Gamal, to succeed him. But Egyptians are deeply opposed. The powerful 72-year old intelligence chief, Gen. Omar Suleiman, an ally of the U.S. and Israel, is another possible strongman. CIA will also be grooming another army or air force general for the job.

Egypt's secular political opposition barely exists. The regime's real opponent remains the relatively moderate, highly popular Islamic Brotherhood. It would win a free election hands down. But its leadership is old and tired. Half of Egyptians are under 20.

Mohammed El-Baradai, the intelligent, principled, highly respected Egyptian former UN nuclear chief, is calling for real democracy in his homeland. He presents a very attractive candidate to lead post-Mubarak Egypt.

Washington hopes it can ease another compliant general into power and keep the security forces loyal before 30 years of pent-up fury at Mubarak's dictatorship, Egypt's political emasculation, thirst for change and dire poverty produce a volcanic eruption on the Nile.

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