Tuesday, January 25, 2011

US Middle East Policy is Stuck

Excellent analysis posted at The Atlantic by the Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid today, about "Obama's Impossible Dilemma in Egypt" in the wake of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" (a kind of romanticized orientalist name, by the way, that - as Human Rights Watch's Eric Goldstein noted in the WaPo - does great disservice to the sacrifices that the revolutionaries made, in blood).  Pro-democracy reformists in Egypt have designated today a day of protest, and reports of thousands demonstrating in Cairo are rolling in (e.g., AlJazeera's report). As Hamid notes, Egypt's military is larger and more tightly welded to the political leadership, so the Mubarak regime is not likely to be brought down - at least, not quickly - - which puts the US, actually, in an even worse predicament. 
This raises a thorny question for the U.S.: If tens of thousands take to the streets - and stay on the streets - what will it do? The U.S. is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid. In other words, if the army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the Egyptian military is "not there to project power, but to protect the regime."

The U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests. Tunisia, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, was expendable. The revolt was spontaneous and leaderless. Islamists - mostly in prison or in London - were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Tunis or Sidi Bouzid. But if Egypt is lost, it will be lost to an uprising that includes some of the most anti-American opposition groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood - by far the largest opposition force in the country. . . .

the problem the U.S. faces currently is the same it faced during the short-lived "Arab spring" of 2005: For now, it is difficult, if not impossible to have both a democratic Middle East and a pro-American one. Because anti-Americanism is so widespread (in part because the U.S. supports reviled autocrats), and because Islamist groups represent the largest oppositions, any freely elected government will want to distance itself from U.S policies. Unable to resolve this "Islamist dilemma," attempts to promote Arab democracy - including the Bush "freedom agenda" - were either diluted or postponed indefinitely.

But autocracies don't last forever. This is what decades of democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin American, and Sub-Saharan Africa - and perhaps now Tunisia - have shown us. The U.S., then, finds itself in the unenviable position of being a status quo power in a region where so many detest the status quo, wish to fight it, and may - or perhaps inevitably will - one day bring it crashing down.

Fortunately for American policymakers, the Egyptian regime will not fall tomorrow. The U.S. has a limited amount of time to, first, re-assess its Middle East policy and, then, re-orient it to ride with, rather than against, the tide of Arab popular rule. It can begin distancing itself from Mubarak by stepping up public criticism of regime repression and deepening contacts with the full range of Egyptian opposition - liberals, leftists, and, yes, Islamists alike. It is better to have leverage with opposition groups before they come to power than afterward.

This by itself would likely change the Mubarak regime's behavior only slightly, if at all, but that's not necessarily the most significant objective for us. Far more important is to send a clear message to the Egyptian people that we support their democratic aspirations and that we will no longer offer unqualified support to a regime that systematically represses those aspirations.

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