What will the U.S. do about Egypt?

What will the U.S. do about Egypt?

The State Department has released the transcript of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks on the ongoing protests in Egypt:

With respect to Egypt, which, as your question implied, like many countries in the region, has been experiencing demonstrations.  We know that they’ve occurred not only in Cairo but around the country, and we’re monitoring that very closely.  We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence.  But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. 

Not exactly stirring stuff, and no doubt the many Egyptians who risked their necks today will be disappointed at this statement. Still, as my friend Shadi Hamid — a staunch democracy advocate — points out, the United States faces a pretty tough dilemma in deciding when and how to pressure one of its closest Middle East allies to open up its political system:

The U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests. Tunisia, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, was expendable. The revolt was spontaneous and leaderless. Islamists – mostly in prison or in London – were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Tunis or Sidi Bouzid. But if Egypt is lost, it will be lost to an uprising that includes some of the most anti-American opposition groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood – by far the largest opposition force in the country.

How to square this circle? A couple weeks back, I spoke with Tamara Cofman Wittes, the deputy secretary of state who leads Middle East democracy promotion efforts. To be clear, our conversation took place days before the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and well before today’s protests in Egypt. I asked her (an admittedly long and convulted) question about the Egyptian government and its intrasigence on political reform. Here’s what she said:

Look, we have a very multifaceted relationship with the Egyptian government. They’re an important partner on a lot of regional issues, and they’re an important partner because we share a lot of interests in this region. We share an interest in a stable Iraq that’s reintegating into the Arab world. We share in an interest in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We share an interest in containing the strategic threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

And so we work together on all these things because  we have these common interests and we believe that Egypt can be a strong leader on these issues in the region, a stronger leader, if it engages in the kind of political reform that it’s committed to both internationally and to its own people. And we’d like to see that. We’ve been very open about that. And I don’t think there’s anything we’ve said publicly that differs from what we’ve said privately on these issues.

We’ve been I think very consistent in saying that the Emergency Law in Egypt should not be a regular way of doing business, that if, as President Mubarak has committed, if they’re going to replace it with a counterterrorism law, it should be one that protects civil liberties.

[Me: They’ve been saying that for five years.]

Yes, they have — you were there when President Mubarak made that commitment, and that’s a commitment he made to his own people and it’s one that we hope he’ll fulfill.

I imagine the Obama administration will be calibrating its message in the hours and days ahead — but don’t hold your breath for a powerful statement during the State of the Union address tonight.