America & Egypt in a Post-Mubarak World
4 February, 2011
Regardless of the final outcome of the past few week’s historic events, it has been increasingly clear that the regime of Hosni Mubarak is isolated and fast coming to an end. Whether Mubarak steps down or is forced out at the hands of the pro-democracy demonstrators currently occupying Tahrir Square or as part of an arrangement between the US and the Egyptian government, the time has come for a thorough reexamination of our policy towards the greater Middle East via our relationship with Egypt. While Mubarak’s departure presents profound challenges, it also presents great opportunities- not just for the US, but also for Egypt and the greater Middle East.
First, let’s look at what interests the US has in the Mideast:
1. Securing the safety of oil and shipping infrastructure, including the Suez Canal.
2. Maintaining regional cooperation with regards to counterterrorism and deterring violent extremism.
3. On an increasingly more ideological note, maintaining Israel’s security.
4. Promoting democratic governance in a region marked by autocracy.
Over the past 30 years, we’ve relied on Mubarak for the first three at the neglect of the fourth. Given the groundswell of Egyptian desire for democracy, I believe that a thoughtful consideration of our policies will afford the opportunity to secure all four in a just and equitable fashion.
First, the safety of Egypt’s pipelines and ports will remain the #1 priority of any Egyptian government. Considering that nearly half of Egypt’s population subsists on less than $2 USD a day and the way in which this poverty influenced the current civil unrest, any subsequent government’s longevity will depend heavily on preserving Egypt’s status as a shipping and transport hub while also promoting future economic growth for all Egyptians. The US must be prepared to help the Egyptian government do this while also respecting its sovereignty.
Our second, third and fourth considerations are messily intertwined, but no less strategically important than the first. We must recognize that a truly democratic Egypt will have a different stance towards Israel than Mubarak’s desire to preserve the rather tepid regional status quo. Consequently, the US mustn’t be afraid to use $1.5 billion of yearly aid as leverage- the peace treaty with Israel must be maintained. However, a democratic Egypt will likely act to revoke the Gaza blockade. This presents another challenge and opportunity- if Egypt can ease the longstanding suffering of Palestinians in Gaza while simultaneously reigning in Hamas, it will benefit from an international PR standpoint as well as assuaging domestic concerns. The US must recognize the untenability of the existing situation, and place equal pressure on its Israeli and Arab counterparts to do the same in pursuit of sustainable policymaking. Doing this could help Egypt regain its status as an important regional diplomatic player as well as deterring extremism- given that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of our regional security interests, responsible management of the Gaza situation by Egypt with US help could do wonders towards ensuring peace and deterring violent extremism within the Arab world. Similarly, a democratic Egypt may present the necessary political capital to finally get the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy on a tenable footing.
The recent events in Egypt demonstrate finally that democracy isn’t antithetical to the Arab world, but it also demonstrates that democracy cannot be imposed by an outside party. It’s time that US policymakers embraced the understanding that a democratic Egypt may not adopt Jeffersonian ideals in our image, and yet, that this in and of itself doesn’t pose a material threat to our interests. With proper, equitable and just management of our diplomacy, the cynical confrontation between our values and our interests becomes less imminent.
Is this optimistic? Overwhelmingly so. There are numerous junctures at which either party could make horrendous mistakes, and the consequences of failure remain high. However, Egypt’s unprecedented circumstances present the opportunity to turn the page on thirty years of stagnation, duplicity, and mistrust- I only hope that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are willing to consider it as such.