This Commentary first appeared in the American Interest's Middle East Blog on January 31, 2011.
The end is now at hand for the government of Hosni Mubarak, ruler of Egypt for the last thirty years. Two outstanding questions face us now: What will the army do? And how should the United States react?
Called into the streets by President Mubarak in an eleventh-hour attempt to secure his rule, the army has shown remarkable restraint. It has deployed to protect key buildings and infrastructure and, so far, has refused to enforce bans on demonstrations. In some places the army—regarded as the most august of national institutions and the most powerful arbiter of Egyptian politics—has given demonstrators rides on armored personnel carriers.
The military is undoubtedly weighing several factors here. First, it must consider the cost to its national prestige of engaging in wholesale repression of a broadly popular political movement. Second, it will calculate the advantages or disadvantages of doing so in the service of a badly wounded regime. Third—and critically—it will bear in mind the implications that crushing the demonstrations would have on its close military relations with the United States, which provides the financial aid, advanced weapons systems and vital logistics support the Egyptian military depends on. So far, the military has erred on the side of caution. That may not be true tomorrow.
Which brings us to the question of what the United States should do. The Administration seems to have struggled to find its footing so far. Secretary of State Clinton asserted on January 25 that “the Egyptian government is stable,” and Vice President Biden assessed three days later that it was not time for Mubarak to step aside, adding that “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” The Administration has veered from calling for an “orderly transition” in Egypt to a “national dialogue” between government and protesters to resolve “legitimate grievances.” On Sunday, Clinton stated on CNN that “we do not want to send any message about backing forward or backing back. . . . We’re not advocating any specific outcome.” Well, that clears things up.
The underlying hope appears to be that Mubarak will weather the storm and that grievances can be addressed through a process of measured, stately “reform,” probably lasting many years and the main purpose of which would be to keep the regime in power so that U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli “peace process” can process undisturbed. As events move quickly in Cairo, the Administration’s tone seems to be evolving almost hourly, with stronger hints in public statements that it may be time for Mubarak to pack his bags. But the response so far suggests a certain strategic confusion as old assumptions about the importance of stability and Egypt as a pillar thereof are torn apart and replaced by…something new.
A number of observers have suggested that events are beyond American control, that we have limited means to influence political change, or that we have been discredited on issues of democracy. There is some truth to this. But the time for doubling down on dictatorships in the region for the sake of “stability” has passed, and the United States still has a chance to help define the next status quo. Both governments and people in the streets listen to what we say, or don’t say. The position of the United States government speaks volumes to those who are risking their lives for the cause of democracy.
America must make clear that it stands behind the cause of freedom in Egypt, and it must publicly state in very specific terms what that means: the right of people to assemble and air their grievances; the end of the emergency law that has allowed Mubarak to govern with impunity for thirty years; and implementation of the basic human rights to which the Egyptian constitution commits the government.
Behind the scenes, there is more that can be done. For starters, the United States should make it clear that it will review the terms of its aid package to Egypt, which would in any case become unsustainable in the U.S. Congress should violent repression become the Egyptian government’s dominant response to the current unrest. So far, the Administration has sent mixed signals on this issue. The Administration should move to underscore this point forcefully, if privately, with the government and the military, which takes very seriously its relationship with the Pentagon and the White House. Encouragingly, high-level contacts between the Pentagon and Egyptian military chiefs have taken place in the last several days. Withdrawing the two-star chief of the Embassy’s Office of Military Cooperation for “consultations” would provide a stark demonstration of the Administration’s will at a critical moment.
President Obama must also take the reins of policy in hand and ensure that his Administration speaks with one voice. That voice should be telling the Egyptian government, quietly to begin with and more publicly if necessary, that it is time for President Mubarak to step down and for a peaceful transition to a truly democratic government to take place. The United States should be prepared to marshal technical and financial resources, in coordination with the United Nations and the European Union, to support such a transition and organize international monitors for the elections of a new President and a new parliament. The United States should also reach out to opposition figures and parties wherever they can be found, including Nobel laureate Mohamed el-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood, diplomatic contacts with which have been banned by U.S. policy in deference to the Mubarak government’s sensibilities.
In 2003, President Bush spoke to the National Endowment for Democracy in words that proved prophetic. He said, "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export."
He also said, “the great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.” He was right on both counts. That the United States has been reticent to push for democratic advancement in the region for several years now leaves us at a disadvantage as we respond to events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria and perhaps others to follow, inspired by the Egyptian example. But it is not too late to get on the right side of history.
America must take the opportunity to redefine its policy on democratization in the region to account for the upheaval presently upon us, and to develop a consistent strategic response to the yearning of those in the Arab world and beyond for truly representative government. This is, after all, what our country stands for. To support it now in Egypt, and to communicate a clear and consistent message about its necessity elsewhere in the region, will ultimately help strengthen our vital interests.
Any such strategy will of course have pitfalls of its own, and and as changes come not all of them will be to the liking of the United States. Free and fair elections bring risks. And the United States may no longer be able to count on the unwavering support of new political elites that might emerge. But change has arrived, whether we like it or not, and the United States must be prepared to accommodate it and manage it as best it can.
Certainly everything has now changed in U.S. relations with Egypt, in the prospects for a smooth transition of power in Cairo, and in Amercan assumptions about the stability of our other allies in the region. But tyrannies such as those in Damascus and Tehran cannot sit back and smugly tally the costs for U.S. interests: the bell may toll for them too. We need energetic and creative American diplomacy to turn the situation to our advantage, or at least to discomfit adversaries who would seek to profit from the fall of the old order.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.