While Mubarak, called the “Pharaoh” by his opponents, failed to meet the needs of a growing population, his heavy hand provided stability and kept the Brotherhood in check. If Egypt collapses into chaos and the Brotherhood comes to power, the entire balance of power in the region would be upset. For the Israelis, it is the nightmare scenario.
At the center of the Islamic world sits Egypt, located on the western edge of the Fertile Crescent. It was here, in the Nile Valley, where civilization emerged 7,000 years ago.
While most people know little about modern Egypt, they are familiar with ancient Egypt, which still casts a long shadow into the present.
The Great Pyramid at Giza and the Lighthouse at Alexandria are counted among the Seven Wonders of the World. On the reverse side of our one-dollar bill is a pyramid, in part indicating our connection with the ancient world, along with the famous Egyptian obelisks, today seen in the Washington Monument. We are fascinated by the miracle of preservation, mummies, the legendary King Tut and Cleopatra, the subject of two recent books.
And, of course, everyone knows that the Suez Canal, built in the mid-19th century, is one of the world’s lifelines for transit. Egypt’s strategic importance cannot be overestimated. In World War II, one of the initial aims of the allies was to keep it out of German hands, and thanks to the British and the Americans, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was evicted from North Africa, preventing it from taking Suez.
Along with Turkey, a member of NATO and a Muslim nation, Egypt is the pivot of the region, a friend and ally of Washington for more than 40 years.
Today, we have seen a successful effort to oust President Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after the assassination of President Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981.
How this crisis will play out is an open question, but with Mubarak stepping down, the door may be open for a more democratic Egypt. What Washington and the European Union fear is that Egypt will fall into more chaos, and out of this chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge.
Despite claims it has moderated its views, the Brotherhood remains stridently anti-Western and implacably hostile to Israel, which it views as a cancer in the region. It denies the Holocaust, promises to cut off the gas supply to Israel and maintains that there is a Jewish plot to control the world.
The Brotherhood has branches in Jordan, Syria and nearly all of the states of North Africa. We have already had a preview of what they would do once in power because Hamas, a branch of the Brotherhood, controls Gaza.
After an open election several years ago, they slaughtered the leaders of the opposition, the Fatah Party (the successor to the Palestine Liberation Organization), by cutting off the kneecaps of their victims and throwing them off rooftops. Many fear that if they came to power in Egypt, it would also mark the end of the leadership in other regional powers, a spreading contagion of Islamic extremism.
To be sure, the demands of the Egyptian demonstrators are real, but out of chaos, well-organized radical groups are often the victors, as we witnessed in Germany in 1933 and in Iran in 1979.
While Mubarak, called the “Pharaoh” by his opponents, failed to meet the needs of a growing population, his heavy hand provided stability and kept the Brotherhood in check.
However, if Egypt collapses into chaos and the Brotherhood comes to power, the entire balance of power in the region would be upset. For the Israelis, it is the nightmare scenario –– all the more so with Iran on the cusp of having atomic weapons. This is why the lights have been burning deep into the night in every capital of the region, in Europe and Washington.
After nearly 5,000 years of continuous history, Egypt will survive. A month or year from now, the pyramids, the sphinx and obelisks will still be standing. And, hopefully, a moderate Egypt will be under their ancient shadow.
Sander A. Diamond is a professor of history at Keuka College, N.Y.