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Does Anyone Remember Egypt: The Prize?

Wednesday, 2 Feb 2011 | 10:41 AM ET
Egyptian demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, gather around the national television building guarded by members of the Presidential guard in Cairo on January 28, 2011.
Khaled Desouki | AFP | Getty Images
Egyptian demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, gather around the national television building guarded by members of the Presidential guard in Cairo on January 28, 2011.

A little over nine years ago, one of the biggest stories in international affairs was Thomas E. Ricks’ page one story in the Washington Post about a briefing given to a Pentagon advisory group, that characterized the Saudi ruling family as enemies of the United States.

The story, published on August 6, 2002, described a 24-slide presentation given by Rand Corp analyst Laurent Murawiec in July of 2002. His audience was the Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel of wonky foreign policy nerds. Jack Shafer at Slate followed up the next day by actually reproducing the PowerPoint presentation.

At the time, the greatest attention was paid to the shadowy background of Murawiec—he was a vaguely neo-conish guy who no one had ever heard of, but was once associated with Lyndon LaRouche—and the anti-Saudi part of the presentation.

But a lot of people also noticed the weird end of the presentation. The very last slide declared the “Grand strategy for the Middle East” in three bullet points.

  • Iraq is the tactical pivot
  • Saudi Arabia the strategic pivot
  • Egypt the prize

What was so striking about this is that no one knew what the hell it meant. Sure we were angling for war with Iraq. And a lot of neocon types seemed to have it out for the Saudis. But what was Egypt doing on the list, and why would it be the prize. Here’s how Jack Shafer put it:

Egypt the prize?

Because none of the Defense Policy Board attendees are talking candidly about the session, it's hard to divine what "Egypt the prize" means or if Murawiec's briefing put it into any context. It sounds a tad loopy, even by Dr. Strangelove standards. The Post report does mention a "talking point" attached to the 24-page PowerPoint deck that describes Saudi Arabia as "the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" in the Middle East. That's extreme talk even by the standards of the anti-Saudi editorialists at the Weekly Standard and the rest of the invade-Iraq fellowship.

The mystery of Murawiec’s classification of Egypt as “the prize” was soon forgotten, I’m afraid. So much else turned out to be wrong with our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that this incident more or less vanished from our collective memory.

But now that Egypt is in the headlines again, I thought it might be worth reconsidering the idea of “Egypt the prize.” And, as it turns out, I’ve discovered what appears to be Murawiec’s original speech that I believe accompanied the slide show.

The speech is dated May 22, 2002—just a month before he supposedly delivered it to the Pentagon group—and is 76 pages long. It was hiding in plain sight on the website of the Hudson Institute, although as far as I can tell it has received no public attention at all. Importantly, it sheds light on what Murawiec meant when he described Egypt as “the prize.”

Under the subtitle “The Frightening Case of Egypt,” Murawiec writes:

Historically, demographically, intellectually and to some extent religiously, Egypt is the fulcrum of the Arab world. After the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Hosny (sic) Mubarak set a single-minded principle for his dictatorship: he would not be killed like Sadat. As a result, his policy has forever been one of balancing out the centrifugal forces of Egyptian society, and the forces at play in Arab society at large. The terrible legacy of more than twenty years of his rule lies in two aspects: what he has done—give a much freer rein to Islamists in the public, academic, corporate, religious and intellectual spheres while ruthlessly repressing Islamists when they use violence—which has demoralized, subverted and rotted Egyptian society and public life—and what he has not done—devoting the country’s resources and energy to economic growth, investment, infrastructure, education, etc. Egypt is overwhelmed by its demographic growth. It has become a Malthusian basket case. The result is an explosive mix. Traditional Moslems and modernist Arabs have been marginalized, hounded out of the public scene, while the virulent press endlessly incites hatred and violence against Israel and the U.S. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers of 9/11 were Saudis, the remainder were Egyptians.

Mubarak’s ability to gyrate with the prevailing winds offers us the temptation of relying on his opportunism: why not let him crack down on the Islamists once we have terminated their power elsewhere, and benightedly allow him to stay in power without policies being changed—isn’t he our friend after all? That would be a sure recipe for disaster. The pivot of the Arab world is the most important one to transform in depth. Iraq may be described as the tactical pivot, the point of entry; Saudi Arabia as the strategic pivot; but Egypt, with its mass, its history, its prestige and its potential, is where the future of the Arab world will be decided. Egypt, then, in the new Middle Eastern environment created by our war, can start being reshaped.

From our standpoint, though, Egypt has to come up at a later stage of the strategic course presented here: it cannot and should not be tackled prior to the fall of Saddam, the cracking of Syria and Hezbollah, and the abasement of the Saudis. It will become possible to tackle the essential issue—that of a useless, dysfunctional tyranny—once the above have been successfully carried out. In the meantime, pressure must come down hard on Mubarak and his regime to stop pandering to militant Islam, notably in the abominable Egyptian media. The 41-part teledrama “Horseman Without A Horse,” based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zionand spread to the entire Arab world, is part of the terrorist assault on the West.

So perhaps Murawiec’s PowerPoint presentation wasn’t quite as strange as it seemed. The idea seems to be that, despite all the focus on Afghanistan and Iraq back in 2002, policy-makers need to keep in mind that “the future of the Arab world” would be decided in Egypt.

Unfortunately, Murawiec died from cancer in 2009, so we cannot ask him what he thinks of events in Egypt over the past week.

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