David Rothkopf

It is time to (quietly) suspend aid to Egypt

In the past several days, an Obama administration that has, for the most part, appeared to handle the Egypt uprising well has been sailing a little close to the wind. In an attempt to appear on top of events, the administration has issued statements that felt a little too much like taking credit for persuading ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the past several days, an Obama administration that has, for the most part, appeared to handle the Egypt uprising well has been sailing a little close to the wind. In an attempt to appear on top of events, the administration has issued statements that felt a little too much like taking credit for persuading Mubarak to leave office by September.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed they know better when he stated that there were some elements of diplomacy that best take place away from the cameras. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were right to turn to a man as experienced and gifted as former Ambassador Frank Wisner to conduct key elements of their behind the scenes communications with the Egyptian leadership. Wisner is one of the very best the State Department has produced in the past half century. But, what he did and what the president may have said to Mubarak on the telephone in private should have remained private.

That said, going forward, there is much that should be communicated to the Egyptian leadership — quietly — in the next day or so if it has not already been said. Paramount among these messages should be an unequivocal statement along the following lines:

While we are deeply grateful for the support and friendship that President Mubarak and the people of Egypt have shown to the United States during the past several decades, we must acknowledge what has changed in these first days of 2011 … and what has not.

Let us begin with what has not changed. First, America continues to seek only the best relationship with the people and government of Egypt. Such a relationship is, of course, based on a foundation of mutual respect and a recognition that all nations must advance their own national interests. A reason for the strength of our relationship and the depth of our commitment to Egypt over these past decades is the degree to which these principles have been followed.

The United States’ primary national interest with regard to Egypt is in preserving peace and stability in the region and in the collaboration that was possible due to our shared goals. That does not just mean peace between Egypt and its neighbors — it means peace within Egypt and it means stability throughout the region. It also means supporting the shared values and vision that will produce greater peace, stability, and prosperity in the future.

What has changed in the past two weeks is that we now believe that the status quo represents a clear threat to our interests. Both the peoples’ demands for change, and President Mubarak’s commitment to change and to reform have reset expectations. The recent attacks on pro-reform protestors not only are inflammatory in the face of those expectations, but they also undercut any possibility that the current administration can rule even through September. It now appears that the government does not seriously embrace reform and that it or actors over which it has control are actively provoking conflict.

Further, we see protracted instability here as a threat not only to our interests here in Egypt but throughout the region. Therefore, we must be absolutely clear — it is imperative that you embrace and set in motion changes that put into place as soon as possible a new government that can oversee a smooth, swift, fair, and open transition to a democratic government that can be elected in the fall. Until you have done so, we will suspend our aid and support for Egypt until such time as such reforms do take place. 

This is not a threat, rather a reflection of a new reality. It would be contrary to logic or the principles that have guided our relationship for three decades to continue to offer support for a regime that we saw as a threat to stability and one that was directly acting contrary to our interests. The foundation for our modern relationship has been a mutual commitment to sustainable peace in the region. That, we hope will be the foundation for an even stronger future relationship with Egypt … and it will be a worthy legacy by which President Mubarak can be remembered.

It must be clear. We can no longer be seen supporting this regime. Further, if the army we have done so much to supply attacks peaceful protestors, the United States will have to take even more extreme steps to distance ourselves from Egypt. On the other hand, should reform be embraced while Egypt maintains its constructive role in the region, the United States will redouble our support because nothing could be more in our interest than that sort of unmistakable progress.

We don’t have to go public with this. And perhaps this message has been delivered. But if it has not, it should be. Because it is absolutely clear that there will be no appetite in the United States to continue to write big checks to an Egyptian government that is seen as violently, cynically, ruthlessly opposed to meaningful reform and is thus contributing to intolerable instability throughout the region at large.

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