Shadow Government

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Avoiding the Mubarak pyramid scheme

The policy debate over whether to press autocratic yet "friendly" regimes on democracy and human rights is often cast as "values versus interests" or "realism versus idealism," but in the case of Egypt it is better framed as the trade-off between short-term and longer-term interests (or even medium-term, considering President Hosni Mubarak’s age of 81 ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The policy debate over whether to press autocratic yet "friendly" regimes on democracy and human rights is often cast as "values versus interests" or "realism versus idealism," but in the case of Egypt it is better framed as the trade-off between short-term and longer-term interests (or even medium-term, considering President Hosni Mubarak's age of 81 and his regime's brittleness). For a dwindling time longer, Mubarak might continue to offer a degree of stability and be a sometimes reliable partner on regional peace and security issues. But his remaining time in office is finite, and there are positive ferments for reform brewing in Egypt that are in the strategic interest of the United States to support. In a sign of the times, even Mohammed El-Baradei, frequently nettlesome in his former role as head of the IAEA, has emerged in the unlikely reincarnation as one of Mubarak's most energetic electoral challengers.

Jackson Diehl points out as much in his excellent column urging the Obama administration to seize the democracy agenda in Egypt as a strategic opportunity in a troubled region. And he is right. But the Obama administration seems to see this as more of an annoyance than an opportunity, at least judging by its damaging cuts imposed over the past year on U.S. democracy funding in Egypt. Besides whacking the budget from $45 million to $20 million, perhaps even more damaging was the Administration's imposition of new regulations prohibiting any USAID funding going to groups not approved by the Egyptian Government -- which happen to be precisely the same groups that are the most potent reformers and that most need the funding.

While the concern is sometimes raised that visible US funding for reformers risks "tainting" them, the fact remains that the democracy funding was only given to Egyptians who applied for it aware of and willing to assume any risks. And several groups and individuals -- such as Safwat Girgis, Ahmed Samih, Radio Horytna, and the Egyptian Center for Human Rights -- have been willing to appeal publicly for U.S. funding and support in the wake of the budget cuts. Even more important than the funding itself can be the display of American moral support for democracy activists, which can increase their sphere of protection and alert autocratic regimes of the heightened diplomatic cost to any repression.

The policy debate over whether to press autocratic yet "friendly" regimes on democracy and human rights is often cast as "values versus interests" or "realism versus idealism," but in the case of Egypt it is better framed as the trade-off between short-term and longer-term interests (or even medium-term, considering President Hosni Mubarak’s age of 81 and his regime’s brittleness). For a dwindling time longer, Mubarak might continue to offer a degree of stability and be a sometimes reliable partner on regional peace and security issues. But his remaining time in office is finite, and there are positive ferments for reform brewing in Egypt that are in the strategic interest of the United States to support. In a sign of the times, even Mohammed El-Baradei, frequently nettlesome in his former role as head of the IAEA, has emerged in the unlikely reincarnation as one of Mubarak’s most energetic electoral challengers.

Jackson Diehl points out as much in his excellent column urging the Obama administration to seize the democracy agenda in Egypt as a strategic opportunity in a troubled region. And he is right. But the Obama administration seems to see this as more of an annoyance than an opportunity, at least judging by its damaging cuts imposed over the past year on U.S. democracy funding in Egypt. Besides whacking the budget from $45 million to $20 million, perhaps even more damaging was the Administration’s imposition of new regulations prohibiting any USAID funding going to groups not approved by the Egyptian Government — which happen to be precisely the same groups that are the most potent reformers and that most need the funding.

While the concern is sometimes raised that visible US funding for reformers risks "tainting" them, the fact remains that the democracy funding was only given to Egyptians who applied for it aware of and willing to assume any risks. And several groups and individuals — such as Safwat Girgis, Ahmed Samih, Radio Horytna, and the Egyptian Center for Human Rights — have been willing to appeal publicly for U.S. funding and support in the wake of the budget cuts. Even more important than the funding itself can be the display of American moral support for democracy activists, which can increase their sphere of protection and alert autocratic regimes of the heightened diplomatic cost to any repression.

This is linked to economic reform as well. The Egyptian state monopolizes not only political life but also too much of the economy, and even though its economic growth rates have accelerated in recent years they have not kept pace with a burgeoning population. The Mubarak regime’s autocratic constraints on political and economic liberty have atrophied what could otherwise be a vibrant middle class and civil society. Instead, Egypt remains mired in a negative cycle in which lack of economic opportunity leaves large numbers of un- or under-employed citizens (especially young men), who in turn have few outlets for constructive political expression — hence in part the persistent appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite a rich intellectual and cultural history, abundant natural resources, and strategic location, Egypt continues to chronically under-perform in most political and economic development metrics. For example, in the Legatum Prosperity Index, Egypt ranks in the global bottom third on economic fundamentals, and among the world’s lowest on democratic institutions, governance, personal freedom, and even social capital — the last factor indicating that Egyptian citizens distrust not only their government but also each other.   

What to do? The Obama administration should at a minimum pursue a three-part strategy. First, restore — better yet, increase — funding for beleaguered democracy and human rights activists, and do not let the Egyptian government decide who receives the grants. Second, as Jay Hallen argues here, transform economic development programs so that funding helps support urban Egyptian entrepreneurs and access to capital for growing small and medium size enterprises.  Third, senior U.S. officials — especially President Obama and Secretary Clinton — should consistently and publicly support the principles of religious freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and open electoral competition in Egypt.

Implementing these points by no means precludes also working constructively with Mubarak, who still is Egypt’s leader and can sometimes be a helpful ally. But the current "Mubarak-only" policy is short-sighted and ineffective. Moreover, it is a policy of Mubarak’s own devising — as he has squelched liberal political dissenters and presented himself as the essential strongman who is the only alternative to Islamic extremists — and not a policy in the American interest.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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