Egypt's Power Vacuum
For an entire week now we've watched tens of thousands of Egyptians march demanding a change in government. The police force has collapsed. The army is out in force. Residents are policing their own neighborhoods. President Mubarak is weighing his options. And the West is wondering what will happen next.
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There is more commentary on Egypt than anyone can read. But there is one perspective we need to be warned against. For a long time Egypt has been America's closest Arab ally in the region. We have sent them billions of dollars over the years. Mubarak sent Egyptian troops to fight in the Iraq war. And he has been a staunch ally in the war on terrorism. Egypt's notorious prisons have tortured many of America's terrorism suspects. Egyptians know this. And a simple symbol is now circulating on the web: Those tear gas canisters fired at the crowd each were labeled with bright blue paint, "Made in the USA" (Pictured at right).
Pundits have been quick to analyze the consequences of the fall of Mubarak. And in the U.S. one potential outcome is now circulating: What if Egypt becomes a new base for terrorism? What if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over? This is a choice between stability and terror -- so what will happen if Egypt slips out of democracy's orbit?
These questions were posed to the Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei this weekend. He appeared almost continuously on international networks because he is not only guiding the demands of the demonstrators, but for some, he's likely the chief opposition leader to the government. "ElBaradei" is a name we ought to memorize immediately.
ElBaradei's remarks about the "terror" threat began with disbelief. This is the view, he argued, that is promoted in the West by conservatives in Washington and Mubarak's regime -- that if a pro-American dictator falls, terrorists will fill the vacuum. Not so, he said. Muslim extremists represent only about 20 percent of the country. The likelihood that this would turn into another Iraq or Iran? Remote. Then he turned the tables on us. "Don't you in America have evangelicals who would like to see a religiously conservative government take over Washington? Would that happen? Not at all." The ABC news reporter I watched looked speechless.
The Egyptian struggle will find its way. It will be messy. More may die. But this is an old country with a deep history and a devoted citizenry that wants to make Egypt work. The test of a good outcome is not if Egypt will continue to do America's bidding. The test will be the building of a government that respects the rights of its citizenry and puts in place structures that holds its leaders accountable. If this happens, we will have witnessed a truly remarkable revolution.
Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books both on the Middle East (Jesus and the Land, Whose Land? Whose Promise) and the New Testament (Jesus the Middle Eastern Story Teller, The New Testament in Antiquity, and Encounters with Jesus).