Home > Foreign Policy > Egypt: A Striking Resemblance to Latin America

Egypt: A Striking Resemblance to Latin America

Wow have I wanted to say something about Egypt for a while now.  I’m amazed with myself that I sat silent for this long.  Egypt is an issue that’s close to heart for many reasons, the obvious being the connection between my family’s history and Israel.  The less obvious connection is in my academic past.

First things first.  Many friends and family with an Israeli connection have expressed serious concerns about the Tahrir Revolution in Egypt.  These concerns range from questions at to whether a democratic Egypt would hold true to their tenuous peace with Israel to whether the end of the Mubarak regime would presage a sweeping Islamification of the Middle East that threatens Israel’s very existence.

While there may be some merit to such concerns, I tend to take a different outlook altogether and I think the difference is borne in my academic interest alluded to above.  I was always intrigued my Latin America for a host of reasons, and early in college I took a class entitled “US Policy to Latin America.”  This piqued my interest in both American foreign policy and Latin American revolutions to the point where I spent the next few years studying any and all Latin American dictatorships and their counterrevolutions.

Why Latin American revolutions?  While much literature pointed to a perceived ideological commonality between the various revolutions, more than anything else the real common thread tended to be anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism, the two run hand-in-hand.  Most revolutions, while “communist” in name, rallied around a distaste for U.S. propagated dictatorships.  Although the revolutionaries were defined by their ideology, the dictators themselves were defined by their anti-ideology.  None were democratic, and few had a vision for progress.  These dictators came to be known as “Caudillos”–authoritarian leaders who shared many common traits:

  1. Caudillos rose through the ranks of the military to gain authoritarian control.
  2. Their ideology centered around the cult-of personality rather than any progressive vision.
  3. They all enriched themselves at the expense of their country.
  4. Each maintained a close strategic alliance with the United States which was mutually beneficial in the international ideological battleground.
  5. All at some point in time cracked down against popular democratic uprisings and suppressed the freedom of speech.

These are the most basic of the symmetries amongst the various caudillos in Latin America.  Interestingly enough, each is an apt character trait of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt.  Most recently, Mubarak has been a pivotal figure in the United States battle against extremist Islam in the Middle East.  So much so in fact that former Vice President Dick Cheney has rose to his defense despite the popular uprising.

You see, the War on Terror is really not all that different than the Cold War in several key respects.  Much of the War on Terror is being pursued in the same manner on both sides.  Lost in all the talk about holy wars and national security is this notion from people in the Middle East that they resent and loathe the U.S. meddling in their own affairs.  This is now strikingly true of even moderate Arabs in a country which we formerly considered one of the more stable in the region.  Why is that?  Well the Arabic equivalent of a caudillo used his relationship with the United States to cement his position in power, and used his power in order to enrich his friends and family at the expense of his country and countrymen.

To me, I see Chile as the closest parallel to Egypt.  Both countries have relatively developed, secular civic societies.  When Augusto Pinochet took control of Chile in a military coup in 1973, it was much to the delight (and perhaps even thanks to the help) of the United States.  Pinochet ultimately was not toppled by a violent revolution, but rather a democratic plebiscite.  The opposition had been suppressed for far too long, far too aggressively and Pinochet laundered a little too much money to secret bank accounts outside of his home country.  After enough popular pressure, the autocratic dictator with an iron fist was forced to face an election on whether he could remain the country’s leader.  Over time, Chile’s robust civic society led to a sometimes struggling, but overall healthy democracy and economy.

The revolution in Egypt is one of those binary historic events in which the outcome will be extreme–either extremely great or extremely bad.  It’s hard to imagine a middle ground.  Call me an optimist, but I see a light at the end of the tunnel here.

  1. Steve
    February 9, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Did Mubarak assume power by rising through the military by his charismatic personality? I never thought of him like that.

    • February 9, 2011 at 9:50 pm

      No, a caudillo need not rise through the military on account of their charisma. Cult of personality is distinct from charisma. It’s more the idea that the essence of the state centers around the individual rather than a prevailing set of principles (i.e. a constitution). In Egypt that is absolutely the case. There are pictures of Mubarak everywhere and his cronies have a hand in just about all commerce in the country.

      • Steve
        February 9, 2011 at 9:54 pm

        Right but that happened once he assumed power. My question is was he such a force of personality that made him the logical successor to Sadat?

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