The Middle East Channel

Time for the U.S. to put its money where its mouth is

Time for the U.S. to put its money where its mouth is

"For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people." These were the words of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Cairo in June, 2005; soon after this, the Bush administration abandoned attempts to advocate democracy in Egypt, and it seems many still support this tired formula of rejecting democracy to protect "stability," defined as leaders who will keep their populations quiet while advancing what are understood to be American foreign policy interests.

While this was always the wrong choice morally, what most critics miss is that, except in the most immediate short-term, in Egypt that choice is no longer available. Facilitating a post-Mubarak transition would not threaten U.S. foreign policy interests as much as many fear, in part because his contribution to those interests was exaggerated to begin with and because in his current weakened state, Mubarak no longer has the regional credibility to reassume his previous role. Regime change, meanwhile, is unlikely to meaningfully shift Egyptian foreign policy. Thus, realpolitik as much as a commitment to democracy and human rights require that the U.S. move unequivocally to support change in Egypt; this includes conditioning the continuation of U.S. aid on meeting clear political benchmarks, including immediate changes to ensure that the presidential elections scheduled for 2011 will be conducted and will be free and fair.

The parlor game of predicting whether Hosni Mubarak will stay or go misses one of the few facts of Egyptian politics that has not changed in the last week — the president’s physical frailty. Even if "stability" can be regained in the short term through massive repression, the president is 82 and in poor health. As far back as 2007, the editor of a major newspaper was jailed for "damaging national stability" by speculating during a prolonged Mubarak absence that the president was gravely ill or had died. Such speculation was rampant last year when Mubarak was again absent for weeks prior to undergoing surgery in Germany. Mubarak may survive this week of protest, but it is highly unlikely that he will be able to command Egypt very far into the future, making tying American interests there to his continuation in office now at best a short-term bet.

While Hosni Mubarak himself cannot be on the scene for much longer, the protests of the last week have made it unequivocally clear that the population will not accept Mubarak’s son Gamal as his replacement. Today’s announcement of Omar Suleiman as the new Vice President may signal that the government knows this; Suleiman, the head of the General Intelligence Service, is almost always mentioned as the other alternative to a Gamal Mubarak presidency, so his ascendance to the vice presidency may well mean that the regime is positioning Suleiman to run in September’s presidential elections. It is critical that this election actually be held and that it be free and fair, which will require immediate changes to Egyptian politics. If the regime canceled these elections, this would quash any U.S. claims that the regime could pursue meaningful reform and put the U.S. in a position of supporting a flagrantly dictatorial regime which had continued past its constitutionally mandated end. If it held them, massive fraud would be required to bring either Hosni or Gamal to power, and such an outcome would probably lead to a resumption of this week’s protests, as would a Suleiman win achieved through obvious vote-rigging. Thus, even if U.S. support of Mubarak helps him hold on now, the problem of leadership and stability is only being kicked down the road a few months at most without free and fair elections, making it advisable for the U.S. to be signaling support for fundamental change now rather than later.

If supporting Mubarak can no longer guarantee "stability" within Egypt, would moving to a post-Mubarak future severely undermine U.S. foreign policy goals? Egypt became the second largest recipient of U.S. aid after signing the Camp David treaty, and commitment to Egypt-Israel peace, as well as periodic assistance in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, has always been the key reason for U.S. support. But how much have Mubarak’s efforts in this area actually contributed to U.S. interests?

One of Mubarak’s most ballyhooed contributions was to broker a Hamas-Israel ceasefire in June 2008, but that at most only delayed the outbreak of violence, as seen in the Gaza war which occurred seven months later. Yes, Mubarak has periodically helped to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. But in light of the almost complete absence of peace talks over the past two years, and their continued failure when they do occur, does this constitute a significant advancement of U.S. interests? More importantly, just as Arab citizens have been watching events first in Tunisia and now in Egypt very carefully, so have the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Israel, all of whom are much more aware of the fragility of the Mubarak regime than the U.S. seems to be. In his severely weakened position, will Israelis and Palestinians put much stock in any future Mubarak attempts to negotiate with them?

Some will argue that even if Mubarak did not fundamentally advance the U.S. interest in Arab-Israeli peace, he at least maintained Egypt’s cold peace with Israel, which future Egyptian regime — especially if it had significant Muslim Brotherhood participation — might not. This possibility, though, is remote. The Muslim Brotherhood played very little role in this week’s protests, and given this small role, it is highly unlikely the Brotherhood would dominate any post-protest government. Even if it did, the Brotherhood or other Egyptian protesters do not want Egypt to return to war with Israel.

As Robert Kaplan notes today, cries for change in foreign policy, or against Israel or the U.S., have been notably absent in the demonstrations, and given the chance to actually form a government, any political force that turned its focus away from creating a new political reality in Egypt to inciting violence with Israel would lose support almost immediately. It is very hard to overstate how hungry Egyptians are for the chance to create their own stable, democratic regime, and given the chance to do so, that is where all their energies will be focused. That new regime will need Western support to flourish, and Egyptians will not risk that support by provocative policies toward Israel.

Given the fact that "stability" in the medium to long-term can no longer be achieved by supporting the Mubarak regime, and that his fall is unlikely to change the American foreign-policy stance, what should the Obama administration do? American aid should be explicitly conditioned on freeing demonstrators imprisoned this week and refraining from violence against others. But this alone is insufficient. Aid should also be conditioned on immediate changes to the political situation that credibly signal intent to hold free and fair presidential elections. Emergency law should be immediately suspended. A wide variety of candidates should be allowed to declare their candidacy and begin campaigning, including Mohamed ElBaradei should he choose to do so. Attempts to repress these candidates should result in suspension of aid, as should significant fraud on election day. The election would ideally have international monitoring, which — according to a June 2009 poll by the University of Maryland — 63 percent of Egyptians said would be beneficial. Even if it is not, then monitoring by the plethora of Egyptian human rights groups, the U.S. and other Western embassy staffs, would be sufficient to assess how free the elections were. To be clear, although the elections might still be held in September, to keep American aid the government would have to signal now through concrete steps a credible intent to make them competitive.

In his speech last night, Obama said that "all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion," and that the people of Egypt have universal rights which include "the right to determine their own destiny." Now is the time for the U.S., literally, to put its money where its mouth is.

Vickie Langohr is an associate professor of politics at the College of the Holy Cross.