After the battle for Tahrir Square, the conceptual grid that Western officials have used to divide the Islamic world into friends and enemies, moderates and radicals, good Muslims and bad Muslims has never looked more inadequate, or more irrelevant. A ‘moderate’ and ‘stable’ Arab government, a pillar of US strategy in the Middle East, has been overthrown by a nationwide protest movement demanding democratic reform, transparent governance, freedom of assembly, a more equitable distribution of the country’s resources and a foreign policy more reflective of popular opinion. It has sent other Arab governments into a panic while raising the hopes of their young, frustrated populations. If the revolution in Egypt succeeds, it will have swept away not only a corrupt and autocratic regime, but the vocabulary, and the patterns of thought, that have underpinned Western policy in the greater Middle East for more than a half century.

The fate of Egypt’s revolution – brought to a pause by the military’s seizure of power on 11 February, after Mubarak’s non-resignation address to his ‘children’ – remains uncertain. Mubarak is gone, but the streets have been mostly cleared of protesters and the army has filled the vacuum: chastened, yet still in power and with considerable resources at its disposal. Until elections are held in six months, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will be ruling by decree, without the façade of parliamentary government. The parliament, voted into office in rigged elections, has been dissolved, a move that won wide support, and a new constitution is being drafted, but it’s not clear how much of a hand the opposition will have in shaping it. More ominously, the Supreme Council has vowed to punish anyone it can accuse of spreading ‘chaos and disorder’. The blunt rhetoric of its communiqués may be refreshing after the speeches of Mubarak, his son Gamal and the industrialists who dominated the ruling National Democratic Party, with their formulaic promises of reform and their talk of the nobility of the Egyptian people but ten days ago in Tahrir Square the protesters said – maybe even believed – that the army and the people stood together. Today the council’s communiqués are instructions, not proposals to be debated, and it has notably failed to answer the protesters’ two most urgent demands: the repeal of the Emergency Law and the release of thousands of political prisoners.

So far, most Egyptians have been willing to give the Supreme Council the benefit of the doubt. As in any revolutionary situation, the desire for order and security is nearly as strong as the desire for change, and, after 18 days of protests, the army has provided both – with a decided emphasis on the former. Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the 75-year-old defence minister, often described as ‘Mubarak’s shadow’ (and, in US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks, as his ‘poodle’), is not known to look fondly on democracy, or indeed on anything that might weaken the power of the military, which has dominated Egyptian politics since 1952. Tantawi and his men are likely to try to exploit disagreements in the democracy movement, which now faces the formidable challenges of sustaining momentum and maintaining unity. The regime has always excelled at dividing the opposition, and there are already signs of cracks, particularly along class lines. Thousands of workers in critical industries are still on strike, in defiance of the Supreme Council. Nerves may have been calmed when the army first intervened, but poorer Egyptians may be looking for a more far-reaching set of transformations than the middle class has in mind.

Fears of direct rule by the army are misplaced: it has always preferred to remain aloof from politics and to leave it to the civilian government to handle day-to-day affairs. But even if the Emergency Law is suspended and a democratic government is established, any attempt to roll back the army’s intricate system of privileges, or to reconfigure foreign policy, will meet with resistance from the generals. If that happens, the United States is unlikely to impose serious pressure, or to cut off aid: as the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stressed on 31 January, when Mubarak was still clinging to power, ‘it is not up to us to determine when the grievances of the Egyptian people have been met by the Egyptian government’. With their self-contained military cities, where comfortable apartments and foreign goods can be had at a discount, and with their vast stake in an economy based on a mix of clientelism and neo-liberalism, senior army officers live in a world apart from most Egyptians, which they don’t want to be disturbed. They won’t want to put their aid from the US at risk either, which means they are not going to embrace any dramatic shift in foreign policy – much to Israel’s relief. The army is paid $1.3 billion a year by the United States to maintain the peace with Israel and to provide a variety of related services, from assisting in the blockade of Gaza to undermining Palestinian unity, interrogating prisoners in the ‘war on terror’ and expediting the passage of American ships through the Suez Canal. The army also has close ties with Israel. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief and briefly vice-president, according to one of the WikiLeaks cables, told the Israelis they were ‘welcome’ to invade the Philadelphia Route, a narrow strip of land between Egypt and Gaza, to deter arms smuggling by Hamas. And Egyptian firms close to the Mubarak family continue to sell Israel natural gas at a discount – 40 per cent of the Jewish state’s supply. As expected, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces wasted no time in reassuring Israel that the peace treaty will be upheld. It remains to be seen whether, under a more democratic government, Egypt will interpret the treaty in terms quite so responsive to US and Israeli demands.

It is too early to say whether Egypt will make the transition to civilian rule and recover its sovereignty after 30 years as an American client state, much less whether it will ever recapture the regional leadership it enjoyed under Nasser. But it is not too early to speculate on the regional impact of Mubarak’s overthrow. As the Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-Azm has put it, ‘the regimes feel vulnerable now.’ The symptoms of this anxiety are plain to see: Mahmoud Abbas’s hasty cabinet reshuffle; the Algerian government’s mobilisation of 30,000 police officers to confront a few thousand protesters in central Algiers; the violent repression of the recent demonstrations in Iran, Libya and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, which recommended that Mubarak crush the protests by force – and which offered to continue subsidising the army when the Obama administration briefly hinted that it might reconsider its aid package – is nervously watching developments in Cairo. So is Israel, though it has retreated into radio silence after failing to persuade Obama to continue propping up Mubarak. It’s not just the peace treaty that worries the Israeli government: The last thing it wants to see is a national, Egyptian-style campaign of non-violent resistance against the occupation, or indeed against the Jewish state’s ‘partner in peace’, the increasingly unpopular Palestinian Authority.

If protests continue to spread in the Arab and Muslim world, rulers afraid of going the way of Mubarak are likely to resort to brute force. But this may not be as effective as it has been in the past, thanks to the extraordinary examples of Tunisia and Egypt. Non-violent resistance has acquired a glamour – and reputation for working – it never used to have in the Islamic world, where it was widely believed that governments could not be overturned by peaceful means, and where ‘the armed struggle’ was long considered a manlier style of rebellion, particularly in the heroic early years of the Palestinian Revolution. Another welcome effect of the protests has been to strengthen – indeed, to redeem – the language of democracy in the Islamic world, where it had been tarnished by America’s wars. The birth of an Arab democracy movement is not quite the mortal blow to Islamism that some hopeful Western observers have claimed: as long as millions of poor Arabs are forced to turn to organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood rather than to the state for basic services – and as long as Jerusalem’s Islamic holy sites remain under Israeli control – political Islam will continue to command a substantial base of support. But the Egyptian experience has lessened the old divisions between Islamist and secular forces, and shown that they can work together on a common set of political goals. ‘Tunisia is the solution,’ a chant heard in Tahrir Square, may soon eclipse the Muslim Brotherhood’s old slogan, ‘Islam is the solution.’

In the United States, the revolts were jarring: non-sequiturs in a conversation that, ten years after 11 September, continues to dwell on the threat of radical Islam. As fear turned to fascination, and American journalists and officials sought to make sense of the protests, they reached for explanations that seemed to reflect a desire to refashion them in a more familiar image. The American conversation about Egypt soon became a conversation about America: about the influence of Gene Sharp, a theorist of non-violence credited with writing the ‘playbook’ of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; about the lessons Egypt’s activists had learned on visits to Belgrade from American-trained, anti-Milosevic activists; and, above all, about the facilitating role played by Twitter and Facebook. American technological ingenuity, graciously passed on to the Arab East, had been the midwife of the revolution. Not surprisingly, the revolt’s most popular face in America was the earnest young Google executive Wael Ghonim, whose entrepreneurial vision of change would not be out of place in Silicon Valley. But the men who built the barricades in Tahrir Square, and defended it when the thugs on horseback arrived, were not Twitter users; they were Muslim Brothers, whose very different views about Egypt’s future will have to be taken into account, and not merely as a danger to be averted.

Pundits on both right and left in America have also tried to lay claim to the revolt. Elliott Abrams in the Washington Post reported that Bush had it right, conveniently forgetting that the administration he served abandoned the cause of Egyptian political reform after the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Liberal champions, notably Nicholas Kristof and Roger Cohen in the New York Times, applauded the protesters for focusing on Egypt, rather than on America or Israel: the ‘Arab mind’, Cohen declared, was at last showing signs of maturity, shedding its obsession with American and Zionist plots. He apparently missed the signs in Tahrir Square denouncing Mubarak as an American agent, and suggesting in Hebrew that he go into exile in Tel Aviv. In fact, the revolt grew in part out of a movement that traces its origins to the popular committees in defence of the Second Intifada; many of Egypt’s democrats have long been opponents of the government’s position on Palestine, which they view not merely as unjust but as an insult to national dignity. Domestic and foreign policy in the Middle East are never as neatly distinct as they are in the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

Once Mubarak had fallen, the Obama administration, widely criticised for its incoherent, often stuttering response to the revolt, tried to repackage its performance as a triumph of quiet, heroically persistent diplomacy. The mixed messages, contradictions and sudden shifts reflected, we were now told, the struggle between a White House young guard committed to democratic change in the Middle East, and a cautious old guard in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Press accounts of the struggle between the White House and the State Department, based in large part on off-the-record interviews given by administration officials, gave the impression that Egypt’s revolution was made possible by a revolution in Washington, led by internet savvy, human-rights friendly White House advisers like Samantha Power with Obama’s support behind the scenes. But even when the young guard prevailed, the administration never wavered in its preference for an ‘orderly’, army-led transition. Mubarak could be abandoned, but not the deep state whose co-operation is essential to American policy in the region, from anti-terrorism to the fight against Iran, from the ‘peace process’ to the Suez Canal. If Washington’s response seemed confused, this had less to do with a generational struggle than with the structural legacy of a 30-year ‘partnership’ with the ‘moderate’ regime of Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has heaped praise on the military, which it hopes will contain those in the protest movement who would like to see more radical change, not only in domestic life but in the conduct of foreign policy; in the words of Robert Gates, the army’s conduct has been ‘exemplary’, a ‘contribution to the evolution of democracy’.

When Obama spoke after Mubarak’s resignation, he made no effort to conceal the nature of America’s relationship with the military government, but he did his best to couch it in the depoliticised rhetoric of friendship and partnership. He looked tight-faced and tense as he spun the defeat of an old American ally. He emphasised, to his credit, that the military would have to see to ensure a ‘credible’ transition, beginning with the writing of a new constitution, the lifting of the Emergency Law and the inclusion of ‘all of Egypt’s voices’ – an implicit nod to the Muslim Brotherhood. But he moved quickly to the exalted, airy plane of history, where he has always been most comfortable, whether discussing revolutions in the Arab world or his own life. He celebrated the ‘moral force of non-violence’, quoting Martin Luther King’s remark that ‘there’s something in the soul that cries out for freedom,’ and compared Egypt’s democratic transformation to the fall of the Berlin wall. What he did not say – because it could not be said – was that he had not played the role of Gorbachev, or that an American client state had fallen, perhaps for good.

It was left to other administration officials to spell out the policy implications of Mubarak’s overthrow. They read from an old script, supporting pro-democracy activists in countries such as Iran and Syria while discouraging them in pro-Western states such as Jordan and Yemen. ‘Egypt will never be the same,’ Obama said in his speech, but his staff didn’t seem to think this required any change in Washington. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, tried to turn the success of the Egyptian revolt – an American defeat – into a future victory in Iran, hailing the Green Movement’s demonstrations in Tehran. He wished, he said, that the Iranian government would honour freedom of assembly as the government in Cairo had; he appeared to have forgotten that at least 365 Egyptian protesters were killed, that thousands were injured and hundreds detained, and that the revolt aimed to overthrow the government he was praising. Days later, as pro-regime militias crushed a new wave of protests in Tehran, Hillary Clinton spoke vigorously in defence of Iran’s pro-democracy movement; conspicuous by their absence were the qualifiers and caveats that marked her speeches on Egypt. Like Gibbs, she overlooked the killings and arrests of Egyptian protesters: ‘We wish the opposition and the brave people in the streets across cities in Iran the same opportunity that they saw their Egyptian counterparts seized in the last week.’ Yet neither she nor Obama appeared to be moved when that ‘something in the soul that cries out for freedom’ was heard in Bahrain. The protests by the oppressed Shia majority against the American-backed Sunni monarchy were inconvenient: King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, a reliable enemy of Iran, plays host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and to more than 2000 American military personnel; and the overthrow of the regime might give ideas to the unhappy Shia majority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province. At least five protesters have been killed so far by the police, but the Obama administration has been as circumspect about Bahrain as it has been vocal about Iran.

All of a sudden it is Washington, not the Middle East, that appears stagnant. The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt – and the proliferating signs of unrest in the American sphere of influence in the Middle East – have occurred in spite of American power, not because of it, and they have left the US looking confused and isolated. America’s closest allies in the region are an absolute monarchy where women aren’t allowed to drive and judicial beheadings are common, and an expansionist, increasingly chauvinist Jewish state whose friendship is as much a liability as an asset. If Obama’s assiduous efforts to rebrand the American empire have made little headway, it is in part because they have not been accompanied by any serious rethinking of these strategic priorities: the grandeur of his rhetoric barely masks the poverty of his vision.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the Egyptian revolt is the latest expansion of a new dynamism. A Hizbullah-backed coalition government has come to power in Lebanon by constitutional means, upending Washington’s calculations and deepening Tehran’s influence; Turkey, under an Islamic government, has been pursuing an ambitious foreign policy that ignores the Washington grid. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US can no longer count on the deference of the governments it helped to create.

Despite its uncontested military supremacy in the region, Washington can’t seem to translate its power into real influence, its dominance into lasting hegemony. Its help is rarely even sought in resolving disputes such as the recent tensions over Lebanon’s new government: a distinct preference for regional mediation has emerged. This development is an expression not of a rising anti-Americanism, but of the region’s growing self-reliance and confidence in its ability to find solutions of its own. The best that can be said of Obama’s Middle East policy is that he hasn’t got in the way of this trend as much as his predecessor did. He has been prevented from encouraging it by his own cautious instincts, and by the alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia that he inherited, the terms of which he is unwilling or unable to revise. The days of American hegemony in the Muslim East are not over, but for the first time in years, from Ankara to Cairo, from Tunis to Beirut, the outlines of a post-American Middle East can be glimpsed.

Adam Shatz wrote about the events in Egypt in the 17 February issue of the LRB.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences