Article photo 1
Dr. Michael Doran, a visiting professor at New York University, was Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs at the National Security Council from 2005-2007.

Interview: Understanding the Changing
Middle East

Across the Middle East this year, protesters have filled the streets and demanded the overthrow of dictators who intend to rule for life. To gain some understanding, Near East Report asked former National Security Council member Dr. Michael Doran for his insight on Egypt, Syria and the changes sweeping the region.

Near East Report: After 30 years in power in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak is gone. In hindsight, how did that happen?

Michael Scott Doran: Mubarak’s ouster is, on one level, a chapter in the history of the Arab Spring, which is the story of a rising generation, with little hope of economic and political advancement, realizing that it has other options. But, on another level, it’s also a specifically Egyptian tale. Mubarak paved the way for his own departure by creating a two-party system in Egypt: the official National Democratic Party (NDP), and the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime destroyed all political parties and individuals, no matter how insignificant, who presented a credible non-Islamist challenge to the legitimacy of the NDP. The prosecutions of Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour were indicative of this trend. As corruption and cronyism grew ever deeper, Mubarak lost legitimacy among what might be called the silent majority in Egypt.

To make matters worse, Mubarak stayed in office too long, and was widely believed to have been grooming his son Gamal as his successor. The idea of establishing a republican dynasty, on the Syrian and Iraqi models, offended Egyptian opinion across the board. When the crunch came in the form of the Arab Spring, very few people were pro-Mubarak.

Egypt, unlike Libya or Syria, is a nation-state. The institutions are more legitimate. They rest on a stable and relatively homogenous national identity that is independent of the personality of the ruler. The same thing is true, by the way, in Tunisia. In these two countries it was therefore possible to oust the leader without throwing the country into civil war.

NER: What is the U.S. interest in Egypt, and why should Americans care about what happens in Egypt in the coming months and years?

MSD: For the U.S., the question “Whither Egypt?” is the single most pressing strategic problem in the Middle East today. If Egypt were to decide to work against American interests in any significant way, the United States would find life in the region much more difficult. Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the legs of a tripod that supported American interests from 1979 down to the present. If one leg of a tripod breaks, the whole structure becomes unstable. All three have gone a bit wobbly of late, but the Egyptian leg is the most worrisome, because the country is going through a systemic transformation. The situation is very fluid, and the stakes are very high.

NER: Will post-Mubarak Egypt continue to adhere to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty? How do the most important players in Egypt today view the treaty?

MSD: As we speak, a new partnership is being forged between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now a key player, perhaps the key player in domestic politics. The rules of this new partnership are subject to continuous revision. The Muslim Brotherhood will test the limits of its newfound power and legitimacy by lobbying the military to put distance between itself and Israel. We have already seen clear indications of this process.

The Brotherhood is ideologically aligned with Hamas. In the ideal world of its hardliners, Egypt should follow Hamas’ rejectionist line to the letter. Whether the Brotherhood will listen to the hardliners, however, is unclear.

The key question is: Does the Brotherhood see itself as a revolutionary vanguard trying to pull society toward its concept of utopia, or does it see itself as a venerable organization seeking, at long last, the legitimacy and approval that it has long been denied from the wider society? I don’t know the answer to that question, because both currents of opinion compete with each other inside the Brotherhood. My working assumption, for what it is worth, is that the hardliners will find it difficult to implement their preferred agenda with respect to Israel.

If the military were to adopt Hamas’ rejectionism, Egyptian-American relations would deteriorate severely. This, in turn, would have adverse effects on foreign investment and on military aid, to name just two important factors. Therefore, the Brotherhood’s preference for Hamas will be checked somewhat. The organization has its eyes on the prize: power and authority in the domestic Egyptian system. It won’t let its hatred of Israel destroy its relations with the military, or, for that matter, create the impression among the majority of Egyptians that it is incapable of looking after the best interests of Egypt as a whole. Many of the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood, I am told by knowledgeable observers, have views that are more in keeping with the reformers in Tahrir Square than with the old guard of the organization. In other words, the young guard is primarily concerned with jobs and political freedom. I hope these observers are correct. I chose the word “hope” carefully. We need to watch events closely and read the evidence in a dispassionate manner.

Even if the young guard is less militant, the military will still play along with the hardliners to a certain extent. The generals will be tempted to use the Brotherhood’s hostility toward Israel as a means of negotiating a better deal from the United States. It will depict itself as having daggers at its back for being too close to Israel, and it will demand that Washington pay up for every bit of help that the military provides in the peace arena.

Things will get most dicey in the dynamic between the Muslim Brotherhood and its radical Islamist rivals: the Salafis, the Egyptian Islamic Group and al-Qaeda. These elements will try consciously to pull the Muslim Brotherhood, and by extension the Egyptian military and public, in a more extreme direction. History teaches that violence against Israel is the tool of choice in such rivalries. Extremists will use the conflict with Israel as a means of painting the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military as hypocritical. In short, we are in for a bumpy ride.

NER: How strong is the Muslim Brotherhood? Can it ever take power, or is it better seen as a powerful pressure group? What are the Muslim Brotherhood’s goals for Egypt?

MSD: I don’t think anybody knows for sure. Many people are offering with great certitude radically incompatible answers to this question. I think a modicum of skepticism is in order. Strength means several things: numerical size, organizational cohesion and ideological clarity. In terms of size, I am expecting the Brotherhood to make a showing of somewhere between 35 and 51 percent of the seats in parliament, and to be the biggest single party on the Egyptian scene. The organization is clever. It is putting out the word that it does not want to win by a landslide, because it fears a backlash if people think it is trying to take over. How do we interpret this? Either it actually does not want to win by a landslide, for the stated reason. Or, alternatively, it does not have the ability to win, but wants to create the impression nonetheless of hidden, restrained power.

After the elections, I am expecting it to have real difficulties holding itself together as a cohesive organization with a clear vision. The burning question in Egypt today is jobs. The Brotherhood’s message: “Islam is the answer,” is not going to satisfy many of those who are seeking employment. As the organization becomes responsible for delivering solutions to practical problems of its constituents, it will come under stresses and strains. Over time, credible, non-Islamist competitors will rise up. That is the rosy scenario that I am currently entertaining. I also have a darker scenario in mind: political reform will once again be curtailed and the Brotherhood and the military will re-impose a post-Mubarak form of dictatorship.

NER: Ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for September, what can the United States do to help support democratic groups without tainting them or undermining their independence or legitimacy?

MSD: For starters we need a long-term strategy, not just a goal for September. For the second time in our history—first in Iraq and now in Egypt—democracy promotion is a first-tier strategic issue. When President Obama called on Mubarak to step aside, he made a bet. He gambled that a democratic Egypt is an achievable goal and, moreover, one that is in the long-term strategic interests of the United States. That, in my view, was not a bad bet to make.

But the outcome shouldn’t be left to chance. We need a multi-year strategy for building up the moderate middle in Egypt, which, as I said, was destroyed by Mubarak. It is impossible to achieve that goal in four to six months. The Brotherhood will be the short-term winner in September. That’s a hit we have to take. Any concerted American effort to thwart that outcome will backfire. Creating enduring representative institutions should be our strategic goal. That is a multiyear project that requires, among other things, training Egyptian political parties, working to create an accountable executive, and teaching parliamentarians the difference between being a rubber stamp to the executive and being a responsible representative of the public.

The United States should, as a first step, call together all democratic countries with an interest in a pluralistic Egypt. That would include, especially, the Czechs and Poles, who, having themselves made a transition from authoritarianism, understand the difficulties and believe deeply in democracy. This ad hoc network of external supporters should decide on goals and on roles. Otherwise, there will be chaos. Hundreds of new Egyptian political actors are currently searching for external donors, who will stumble over each other in a rush to help.

NER: Egypt has been reaching out to traditional rivals and enemies including Iran and Hamas. Do you think the Egyptian government will remain pro-Western or will the country develop closer ties with groups opposing U.S. interests in the Middle East, including Syria, Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas?

MSD: I read these moves on four levels. First, they are a natural swing of the pendulum after Mubarak, who was widely accused of having sold Egypt out to the Americans and the Israelis. Second, they reflect the new domestic accommodation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Third, they are an effort by the Egyptian elite to make the United States work a little harder to win their friendship. Finally, they are an effort, especially with regard to Hamas, to take advantage of the weakened state of Syria, Hamas’ traditional external patron, which is currently struggling to survive. Egypt will likely remain an American ally in the long run, but it will be a less reliable partner than it was in the past.

NER: Earlier this year, Assad said that Syria was immune to the protests sweeping the Arab world. It looks like he was wrong. What sparked the protests—and were the conditions for unrest there all along?

MSD: It wasn’t just Assad who said he was immune. Many members of the Middle Eastern Studies and the Syrian Studies communities in the United States and Europe parroted that line, which Assad originally took in an interview in The Wall Street Journal. Supposedly, his steadfast “resistance” to the United States and Israel had made him a hero to the masses. Assad was wrong. But so were the experts, and it is important to call them to account for being shallow analysts, or, in a few notable cases, something that is much worse: abject toadies of a murderous dictator.

What sparked the unrest? A desire among the youth for freedom and for jobs; a belief that it might just be possible to achieve both; a realization, thanks to Facebook, that many, many people across the country were willing to sacrifice at the same time; and, finally, an awareness that there was nothing to lose. Young people realized that if sacrifices were not made, they would have no option other than to live a life of quiet desperation with their necks under the boot of a rapacious regime. Every day, right in front of their eyes, they see the crushed lives of their parents and grandparents. They know that the same fate awaits them so long as this regime stays in power.

NER: Up to now, U.S. policy toward Syria has focused on providing incentives to the Syrian regime to distance itself from Iran. However, during the recent unrest, Syria has been relying even more heavily on Iran for advice and equipment for suppressing protesters. Do you think it is a realistic policy to try to “flip” Syria?

MSD: No, Syria cannot be “flipped”—if by “flipped” you mean brought over to the American side, on the model of Sadat, by negotiating a peace agreement. The regime lives and breathes larceny and blackmail. It has positioned itself solidly within the Iranian camp (and before that, the Soviet camp) but has provocatively extended one leg over the line on the American side. It bats its eyelashes, directing a come-hither look toward Washington. “Come woo me,” it says. “If you will help me get back the cherished Golan, and let me once again dip my toes in the Sea of Galilee, great benefits will come to you. I can help you solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. I will help you shift the balance of power against the Iranians.”

Successive American administrations have fallen for this siren call, believing courtship to be a clever strategic play. In fact, the Assad regime is interested purely in the process of negotiation, not in its outcome. The process gives Damascus tools for playing Tehran off against Washington, legitimating itself at home, and extending its influence over Lebanon, its primary strategic goal. The regime has no interest in actually cutting a deal with Israel or reaching a strategic accommodation with Washington. Actually cutting a deal means losing leverage, which a blackmailer preserves at all costs.

NER: What leverage, if any, does the U.S. have in its relationship with Syria? Is there anything the U.S. can do to more effectively press the Syrian regime to stop using violence against peaceful protesters?

MSD: The protestors themselves represent the greatest form of leverage that the United States government has ever had over the regime. Yet, Washington has not recognized that fact. On the contrary, it has given the regime a pass. We should support the protestors morally and materially, we should help them form a credible leadership with an agreed agenda, and we should organize an international coalition dedicated to forcing the regime to give its population its most basic human rights. That’s just for starters.

The Syrian case is that most remarkable of things: a situation where our values and our interests dovetail perfectly. Such a felicitous overlap rarely occurs in life, and almost never in the international politics of the Middle East. Apparently, it is so rare that, upon encountering it, Washington failed to recognize it for what it was.

NER: The media of late has often debated the topic of Bashar al-Assad as a “reformer.” Where do you think this notion comes from, and do you think that Assad wants to implement any democratic reforms? What reforms has Assad implemented in his 11 years of rule, anyway?

MSD: There is no credible evidence that the regime has ever entertained a serious debate about democratic reform. When Bashar first took power he cracked the window of reform for about six months in 2000-2001. During this so-called “Damascus Spring” he tolerated a very limited discussion about reform. Then he slammed the window shut, and threw potential reformers in jail. In the political realm, he has done nothing reform-minded for an entire decade. In fact, political freedom in Syria, which started from a very low baseline, has actually contracted even further.

In the economic realm Bashar has made some modest changes in banking and financial matters, which were designed primarily to attract foreign investment. But these “reforms” are largely a sham, because there is no rule of law in the country. The economy is dominated entirely by regime cronies, who are “private citizens” only in the sense that they do not have official state titles. Make no mistake: the government looks after them and their economic interests. The emblematic Syrian businessman is Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s cousin, the richest and most hated man in the country. The press labels him a “tycoon,” but nobody in Syria believes that he is a “private” businessman. You cannot start up a business in Syria without giving a cut (usually a majority cut) to Rami Makhlouf or some other regime mafioso. If you try, then you will be visited by the security services, who are very persuasive.

The myth of Bashar-the-reformer comes directly from Assad himself and from his communications network, which consciously feeds the West a line about a supposed debate within the regime over reform. The regime hired a talented British PR firm to put Asma al-Assad, the first lady, in the limelight. Her father is a regime crony, but she is beautiful, elegant and was raised in Britain, where she worked in investment banking. Her image reinforces the false notion that Bashar is trying to move in a new direction. The image is a mirage. The regime, politically and economically, is a family business. Reform, of an either economic or political sort, would spell the end of the family, so it will never take place.

I have been arguing this position for six years, in and out of government, and so far events have entirely supported my viewpoint. My position, however, is still losing in the policy arena. People don’t like to hear that a situation is hopeless. In politics, when you argue that there is no hope, you somehow make yourself look spiteful, small, and unimaginative. It’s not the same in business. If you tell an investor that this or that company is a house of cards and that investors should therefore stay away, you will be thanked and congratulated for your insight when the company collapses. Syria engagement has collapsed several times. But nobody has sent me any emails thanking me for the accuracy of my predictions. If they even remember what I said, they resent the fact that I was right all along.

The reform myth serves the interests of those who support regime engagement. The engagers fall into three main groups: 1) realists who actually know better but recognize that they will undermine their own position if they openly admit that Bashar is an unredeemable dictator; 2) people for whom the dream of a comprehensive peace with Israel is so attractive that they prefer to place a low-odds bet than to abandon the game altogether; 3) and newcomers who have not examined the regime closely enough to recognize its modus operandi.

The myth’s longevity is truly remarkable. Bashar and his friends have been successfully peddling this frustrated-reformer line for ten years, but there is nothing to justify it. Nothing.

NER: Why do you believe the U.N. Security Council has failed to condemn the violence by the government in Syria? Why was there a greater consensus for acting against Libya?

MSD: The main factor is fear of what comes after Bashar, who actually benefitted from the Libyan stalemate. The Obama administration originally thought that ousting Qaddafi would be easy, on the basis of its experiences in Egypt and Tunisia. When it realized, however, that Syria was a divided society, more like Libya than Egypt, it got cold feet. In addition, the Obama team has always dreamed of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, and without Syria, the dream will die.

NER: How do you think Iran, which crushed its own protests two years ago, sees the unrest in the region? Meanwhile, despite setbacks in its nuclear program and the economic impact of sanctions, the Iranian regime continues to enrich uranium. What more can be done to isolate Iran and pressure the regime to stop pursuing its nuclear program?

MSD: Tehran sees a mixed picture, as do we. On the one hand, they see advantages: Egyptian-American relations are in play; Bahrain, home to our fleet, is in crisis; Saudi Arabia is more uneasy than at any time in recent memory; and Turkey is no longer the loyal ally of America that it once was. On the other hand, they see dangers: Syria is the centerpiece of their strategy and it is in dire straits. Most worrisome of all, they see people power sweeping the region.

We won’t truly isolate Iran until we make a decision that, come what may, we will stop it from getting a nuclear weapon. If we make that decision, many avenues short of war that are currently closed to us will open up. Absent an iron resolve in Washington, Iran will get a nuclear weapon.