America Shouldn’t Hijack Egypt’s Revolution
Obama must resist the urge to help Egyptian democrats -- unless they demand it.
Let's face it: Hosni Mubarak was a strategic asset to the United States. He ensured access to the Suez Canal, upheld the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and kept the Islamists down. He also presided over a foul regime that abused its citizens and violated every principle that Americans hold dear. The fact that the United States supported this now-discredited government for three decades is not lost on Egyptians. And it shouldn't be lost on Washington, either, as it attempts to forge a new relationship with Cairo.
Let’s face it: Hosni Mubarak was a strategic asset to the United States. He ensured access to the Suez Canal, upheld the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and kept the Islamists down. He also presided over a foul regime that abused its citizens and violated every principle that Americans hold dear. The fact that the United States supported this now-discredited government for three decades is not lost on Egyptians. And it shouldn’t be lost on Washington, either, as it attempts to forge a new relationship with Cairo.
Washington has a long wish list for the new Egypt. Despite its baggage-laden history with the country, the United States wants Egypt to be democratic, economically successful, and a reliable ally. It wants Cairo to regain its luster as a regional leader so that it may bring its considerable diplomatic weight to bear as an interlocutor on Arab-Israeli affairs and a counterweight to Iran’s regional ambitions. The United States also wants Egypt to serve as a model for political reform, inspiring countries throughout the Arab world toward a more just political order. This ambitious vision is unlikely to be fully realized, but if Egyptians achieve only a portion of their revolutionary aspirations, the Middle East will be a better place.
Policy analysts and democracy-promotion specialists are already racing to formulate a strategy that matches substantial resources to these lofty aims. They want to provide technical assistance to help Egypt develop political parties, impartial electoral laws, judicial independence, and legislative oversight. They also have plans for economic reform, which include U.S. assistance for debt relief and incentives for foreign investment and increased bilateral trade.
Sounds wonderful — in theory. But it’s time to tap the brakes on these grandiose plans, for there are significant drawbacks to a robust American role in post-Mubarak Egypt. If Washington is to realize its goals, it should approach the country’s coming transformation with a lighter touch and a certain amount of humility.
The main reason is that Egyptians remain distrustful of Washington and its intentions. Why shouldn’t they be? Successive administrations — Republican and Democratic alike — supported and benefited from their close ties to Mubarak. Even George W. Bush, who pressed Mubarak hardest to undertake reforms, never penalized him for his stubborn resistance to change. A high-profile approach to Egypt’s transition will consequently raise suspicions about Washington’s intentions and goals, complicating efforts to develop the kind of relationship with the new Egypt that President Barack Obama’s administration wants.
Happily, anti-Americanism was not the main theme of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in late January and early February. But Americans should draw no conclusions from the absence of anger directed toward Washington during the 18 heady days of demonstrations. The political dynamics of the new Egypt will encourage the country’s leaders to diverge from Washington, if only to establish their nationalist credentials. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi have already signaled that they will split from their predecessors and the United States on the Israeli blockade of Gaza and on Egypt’s relationship with Iran.
Even if Washington pledges its total neutrality in Egyptian politics, a bold and public democracy-promotion effort could quickly lapse into support for one party, group, or movement. U.S. officials will be sorely tempted to gravitate toward liberal elements within the revolutionary movement, such as Ayman Nour’s al-Ghad party, the newly licensed al-Wasat party, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and a host of independent figures. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that Congress will remain neutral should the Obama administration choose to work with the Nasserists and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which maintain views on Egyptian foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, that are inimical to American interests.
Already, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has expressed its concern about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized Islamist group. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk released a statement on Feb. 2 cautioning that the United States "must heed growing warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood, their leaders and plans for taking Egypt back to the 13th century." Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also expressed his desire to use U.S. funding to bolster liberal Egyptian political movements, and said that he is "skeptical" about the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic bona fides.
An aggressive American effort in Egypt also risks alienating leaders who would otherwise be willing to work with the United States. The perception that certain groups enjoy American largesse could complicate their efforts in a new, more democratic Egypt. The political environment in Cairo will naturally be hostile to anything even remotely connected to the Mubarak era — including the United States. By taking a high-profile role in Egypt’s transition, the United States increases the risk that potentially pro-American political leaders will be tarred with "Mubarakism."
The United States must also understand how this revolution fits into the last century of Egypt’s political struggles, which have largely focused on achieving independence from international forces that seemingly conspired to rob Egyptians of control over their own destiny. Egypt’s 1919 nationalist revolution aimed to end the British occupation that had compromised the national dignity of its people for 40 years. The 1952 coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power had many causes, but above all else it was a new phase in the anti-colonial effort to bring an end to Britain’s continued influence in Egypt. Mubarak, by continuing his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s alignment with Washington, compromised his country’s independence in the eyes of many Egyptians. In time, it became conventional wisdom among his opponents that the relationship emasculated Egypt’s regional influence while contributing to repression and stagnation at home.
The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have now managed to alter the history that ostensibly all-powerful internal forces — with the help of external patrons — had written for them. As they see it, they brought down their dictator without anyone’s help, and believe that they are capable of constructing a decent political system worthy of a great country. This is a source of empowerment for Egyptians, and a point of pride and dignity.
In the current environment, it is best for outsiders — particularly those with ties to the ancien régime — to keep a low profile. In practice, this means that Washington’s message should focus exclusively on first-order principles: non-violence, tolerance, pluralism, and accountability. It also requires that the United States hew carefully to the needs Egyptians themselves articulate. If Egyptians want American help, then by all means, Washington should give it to them. But the sight of U.S. bureaucrats pushing out comprehensive programs, training, and grants — along with congressional benchmarks and conditions — is likely to embitter all parties involved.
Having long sought to manage their own destiny, Egyptians likely will be reluctant to take unsolicited advice from outsiders. Egypt has eminent jurists, learned scholars, and a large number of talented activists who understand what they want and how to get there. They need a lot less help than we think. If the United States wants to achieve its goals in Egypt, it should allow Egyptians the opportunity to triumph or fail on their own.
Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, will be published in June 2024. Twitter: @stevenacook
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