October 11, 2001
ARAB NATIONS, including those considered allies of the United States, have
been struggling with their response to the U.S.-led military campaign in
Afghanistan. If their contortions were not so familiar they would be hard to
understand: after all, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization are sworn
enemies of the Egyptian and Saudi governments, which in turn depend on the
United States for their security.
But it took Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak three days to choke out a
statement supporting “measures taken by the United States to resist terrorism”;
and even then he coupled it with a parallel demand that Washington “take
measures to resolve the Palestinian problem.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Mubarak’s longtime foreign minister, Amr Moussa, now
the secretary general of the Arab League, prompted first Arab states and then
the 56-nation Islamic Conference to adopt a resolution yesterday opposing U.S.
attacks on any Arab country as part of the anti-terrorism campaign — a position
that offers cover to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In effect, Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Moussa are backing both the military action of
the U.S. alliance and the political position of Osama bin Laden, who on Sunday
claimed that unjust American policies in Israel and Iraq justified his acts of mass
The world, Mr. Moussa said, needs to address the “causes” of the
terrorism, and he suggested that a United Nations conference might be the best
forum. There’s little doubt what he has in mind: After all, Mr. Moussa only a
couple of months ago led the attempt to hijack the U.N. conference on racism
and revive the libel that “Zionism is racism.”
Behind this contradictory rhetoric lies one of the central problems for U.S.
policy in the post-Sept. 11 world: The largest single “cause” of Islamic
extremism and terrorism is not Israel, nor U.S. policy in Iraq, but the very
governments that now purport to support the United States while counseling it
to lean on Ariel Sharon and lay off Saddam Hussein.
Egypt is the leading example. Its autocratic regime, established a half-century
ago under the banner of Arab nationalism and socialism, is politically exhausted
and morally bankrupt. Mr. Mubarak, who checked Islamic extremists in Egypt
only by torture and massacre, has no modern political program or vision of
progress to offer his people as an alternative to Osama bin Laden’s Muslim
Those Egyptians who have tried to promote such a program, such as the
democratic activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, are unjustly imprisoned. Instead, Mr.
Mubarak props himself up with $2 billion a year in U.S. aid, while allowing and
even encouraging state-controlled clerics and media to promote the
anti-Western, anti-modern and anti-Jewish propaganda of the Islamic
The policy serves his purpose by deflecting popular frustration with the
lack of political freedom or economic development in Egypt. It also explains
why so many of Osama bin Laden’s recruits are Egyptian.
For years U.S. and other Western governments have been understanding of Mr.
Mubarak and other “moderate” Arab leaders. They have to be cautious in
helping the United States, it is said, because of the pressures of public opinion
— the opinion, that is, that their own policies have been decisive in creating.
Though the reasoning is circular, the conclusion has been convenient in
sustaining relationships that served U.S. interests, especially during the Cold
War. But the Middle East is a region where the already overused notion that
Sept. 11 “changed everything” may just turn out to be true.
If the United States succeeds in making support or opposition to terrorism and
Islamic extremism the defining test of international politics, as President Bush
has repeatedly promised, then the straddle that the “moderate” Arabs have
practiced for so long could soon become untenable.
Much as it has valued its ties with leaders such as Mr. Mubarak, the
Bush administration needs to begin preparing for the possibility that, unless
they can embrace new policies that offer greater liberty and hope, they will not
survive this war.