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Eric Margolis Headshot

Egypt: The Next Volcano?

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Egypt is facing a potential political eruption that could rock the entire Mideast and seriously undermine US domination of the strategic region.

This threat comes as tensions in the Mideast are already extremely high. Threats of war involving US, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran are flying fast and furious.

President Husni Mubarak, the US-supported strongman who has ruled Egypt with an iron hand for almost 30 years, is 81 and in frail health. Amazingly, he has no designated successor. No one knows who will take over Egypt when he dies.

For Mubarak, it may be "après moi, le deluge." Dealing with elderly dictators is always an extremely tricky business.

Mubarak, an air force general, was put into power with US help after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by nationalist soldiers in 1981. Sadat had been a CIA "asset" since 1952.

My sharp-tongued mother interviewed Sadat in the 1950's and described him as a "clown." Sadat was a hero in the US and Israel, but Egyptians hated him and greeted his killing with jubilation.

Egypt, with 82 million people, is the most populous and important Arab nation. Cairo has long been the cultural center of the Arab world. It is also an overcrowded madhouse with eight million people (12 million in the great Cairo area) crammed into an early 20th century colonial city built for 500,000. Cairo's population has tripled since I lived there as a boy in 1957.

About 28% all Arabs are Egyptians. Deduct North Africa, known as the Maghreb - and not traditionally part of the Arab heartland - and Egypt counts for a third of all Arabs. The Nilotic Egyptians are quite different ethnically from the Arabs of Arabia, Syria and Iraq, but they all share a mostly common language, religion, and sense of pan-Arab identity.

Egypt was once the heart and soul of the Arab and Muslim world. Under Sadat's predecessor, the widely adored nationalist, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt led the Arab world. By contrast, Egyptians despised successor Sadat as a corrupt Western toady, and sullenly accepted Mubarak.

After three decades under Mubarak, Egypt has become a political and cultural backwater, and a virtual American protectorate. Its political, intellectual, and religious life have been hand-cuffed by the security police.

In a very telling incident, Mubarak recently flew to Germany for gall bladder and colon surgery. After some $85 billion in US aid, Mubarak could not even trust a local hospital in the Arab world's leading nation to perform his operation.

The US gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in military aid to keep the generals content, and about $700 million in economic aid, not counting large but secret CIA stipends to key generals, high officials, intelligence chiefs and Egypt's media. A small business elite attached to Mubarak has grown wealthy while the rest of Egypt remains mired in poverty, with a per capita national income around $1,600 per annum.

Egypt does not have enough arable land to feed its growing population, and must import 50% of its foodstuffs, mostly subsidized, low-cost US wheat. This food aid, on which Egypt
depends for sustenance, is appropriated each year by the US Congress.

Washington's powerful Israel lobby, which dominates Congress, could choke off US food aid to Egypt. Sadat and Mubarak gave Israel decisive influence over Egypt's policies in exchange for food aid and billions of dollars, a fact that enrages Egypt's Islamists and nationalists.

Mubarak's Egypt is the cornerstone of America's Mideast Raj (dominion). Egypt's 469,000-man armed forces, 397,000 paramilitary police, and ferocious secret police keep the regime in power and crush all dissent.

Though large, Egypt's military is starved by Washington of modern weapons, ammo, and spare parts so it cannot war against Israel. Its sole function is keeping the US-backed regime in power.

Mubarak has long been a key ally of Israel in battling Islamist and nationalist groups. Egypt and Israel collaborate on penning up Hamas-led Palestinians in Gaza. Hamas is a militant offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and thus greatly feared by Cairo for its calls to root out corruption, share national wealth, impose Islamic justice, and cease automatic obedience to US policies.

Egypt is now building a new steel wall on the Gaza border with US assistance. Mubarak's Wall, which will go down 40 feet, is designed to block tunnels through which Gaza Palestinians rely for supplies. Egypt and Israel claim Mubarak's wall is to prevent arms from being smuggled into Gaza. The East German regime also claimed its notorious wall was for security reasons.

While Washington fulminates against Iran, Burma, and China over human rights, it says nothing about client Egypt, where all elections are rigged, regime opponents brutally tortured, and political opposition liquidated.

Washington could quickly impose real democracy to Egypt, where it pulls all the strings, if it wanted. But it does not. In 1991-92, the Arab world's first truly free election was held in military-run Algeria. The Islamist opposition won a landslide. Algeria's generals, urged on by France and the US, annulled the vote and arrested opposition leaders. The Arab world's second free vote was held in Palestine, and resulted in a landslide for Hamas. The US, Israel and Egypt immediately moved to annul the election and pen up Hamas in the open-air prison of Gaza.

Ayman Nur, the last man who dared run in an election against the eternal Mubarak - "pharaoh" to Islamist opponents - was arrested and tortured. Washington only issued a few mild tut-tuts.

Now, as Mubarak's health fails, the US and Israel are increasingly alarmed his death could produce a political eruption in long-repressed Egypt.

Mubarak has been trying to groom his son, Gamal, to succeed him. But Egyptians are deeply opposed. The powerful 72-year old intelligence chief, Gen. Omar Suleiman, an ally of the US and Israel, is another possible strongman. CIA will also be grooming other army or air force generals for the job.

Egypt's secular political opposition barely exists. The regime's real opponent remains the relatively moderate, popular, Islamic Brotherhood. It would win a free election hands down. But the Brotherhood's leadership is old and tired. Younger, more dynamic leaders have all been jailed or bought off. Half of Egyptians are under 20.

Mohammed el- Baradai, the intelligent, highly respected Egyptian former UN nuclear chief, is calling for real democracy in his homeland. He presents the most attractive candidate to lead post-Mubarak Egypt. But the regime has already begun moving against him.

Washington would do well to back the popular el-Baradei, even if he refuses to toe the line. Better having independent-minded moderate allies with a popular mandate than more despots or military oligarchs. Have we learned nothing from Iran?

Washington hopes it can ease another compliant general into power and keep the security forces loyal before thirty years of pent-up fury at Mubarak's dictatorship, Egypt's political emasculation, thirst for change, and dire poverty produce a volcanic eruption on the Nile.

If Egypt erupts, the US-backed regimes of Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia could be next.