The Worst of Both Worlds

As the revolt in Egypt spreads, Barack Obama faces a familiar dilemma in the Middle East.

The string of popular uprisings that are rocking the Arab world, most recently in Egypt, have created a fundamental dilemma for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Policymakers are being forced to place a bet on an outcome that is inherently unpredictable and pregnant with some unsavory consequences.

There is no shortage of talk about the conditions in these Arab countries that has given rise to the revolts. They have very young populations, poor economic performance, meager future prospects, a widening divide between the wealthy and the poor, and live with a culture of authoritarian arrogance from governments that have come to regard their position as a matter of entitlement. The line between monarchies and "republics" has become so blurred as to be meaningless. Family dynasties rule ... and rule and rule, seemingly forever.

Just about everyone agreed it had to change. But the masses appeared so passive, the governments so efficient at repression -- the one job they did really well -- that no one was willing to predict when or how change would happen.

Now that the status quo is shaking, there are expressions of amazement that the U.S. government made its bed with such dictatorial regimes for so long. We coddled them and gave them huge sums of money while averting our eyes from the more distasteful aspects of their rule. How to explain this hypocrisy?

The facts are not so mysterious. It was an Egyptian dictator (Anwar Sadat) who made peace with Israel, leading to his assassination; and it was another dictator (Hosni Mubarak) who kept that peace, however cold, for the past 30 years. As part of that initial bargain and successive agreements, the United States has paid in excess of $60 billion to the government of Egypt and an amount approaching $100 billion to Israel. The investment may be huge, but since the Camp David agreement negotiated by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 there has been no new Arab-Israel war.

Some may quibble with the crude implication of a payoff or the collapsing of several generations of politics in the Middle East into this simple formula. But it has some validity. Here is how Vice President Joe Biden answered when PBS anchor Jim Lehrer asked him whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a dictator:

Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.

And I think that it would be -- I would not refer to him as a dictator.

Leslie Gelb, a former senior U.S. government official and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it this way:

The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the linchpin to peace in the Middle East. So long as Egypt refrains from warring against Israel, other Arab states cannot take military action by themselves...

So in some minds, the issue is primarily about Israel. As far as I can tell, the government of Israel has yet to declare itself on the wave of uprisings in the Arab world. But if this is an Israeli issue, then it is not just a U.S. foreign-policy problem but also a domestic one, especially in the run up to a presidential election year. The stakes, indeed, could be very high.

It is often forgotten, but there was a major Israeli dimension to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 as well. The shah of Iran was Israel's best friend in the Muslim world, an essential part of Israel's doctrine of the periphery. Israel not only cultivated nations just outside the core Arab center, but in the case of Iran received a substantial portion of its energy supplies via covert oil deliveries to Eilat from the Persian Gulf. Israel and Iran also collaborated on joint development and testing of a ballistic missile system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger formalized the U.S. relationship during a meeting with the shah in 1972. They asked him to serve as the protector of U.S. security interests in the Persian Gulf at a time when the British were withdrawing and the United States was tied down in Indochina. Not only was Iran (and specifically the shah) the linchpin of U.S. regional security, but the United States had no backup plan. So confident was everyone that the shah or his successor would maintain this highly personal relationship that there had been no effort to fashion a Plan B in the event of an unexpected catastrophe.

There is genuine irony in the fact that Carter, Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were at Camp David, in meetings that set the terms for more than a generation of uneasy peace in the Middle East, on the same day that the shah's regime experienced what would eventually prove to be its death blow -- the massacre of protestors at Jaleh Square in Tehran on Sept. 8, 1978.

There is no need to strain the analogy. Iran and Egypt were and are very different places, with very different political dynamics. But the fundamental nature of the decision that is required today by the United States is not very different from the dilemma faced by the Carter administration three decades ago. Should you back the regime to the hilt, in the conviction that a change of leadership would likely endanger your most precious security interests? Or should you side with the opposition -- either because you agree with its goals or simply because you want to be on the "right side of history" (and in a better position to pursue your policy objectives) once the dust has settled?

Of course, there is a third way. You may try to carefully maintain your ties with the current ruler (see Biden above), while offering rhetorical support to freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights. Regrettably, as the Carter administration can attest, that may produce the worst of both worlds. If the ruler falls, he and his supporters will accuse you of being so lukewarm in your support that it was perceived as disavowal; whereas the opposition will dismiss your pious expressions as cynical and ineffectual.

Revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They may fizzle or subside in the face of sustained regime oppression. They may inspire a hard line military man to "restore order" and perhaps thereby elevate himself into a position of political authority that he is later loath to relinquish. They may propel a determined radical fringe into power and thereby impose an ideology that has nothing to do with what people thought they were fighting for. They may go on far longer than anyone imagined at the start.

But for engaged outside powers, such as the United States in the Egyptian situation, a major revolt calls for a leap into the unknown. If you sit back and wait, events may simply pass you by. But if you jump into the fray too early (or with a mistaken notion of what is actually going on) you may lose all influence in the future political construct, whatever that may be. In any event, you should start thinking about how to repair or rebuild a security structure that had been safely on autopilot for too long.

Welcome to the real world, Mr. Obama.



Pharaoh's End

Protests rocked Egypt, calling into question whether President Hosni Mubarak's regime can survive. FP asked five top experts how Barack Obama should respond to the growing signs of revolt on Egypt's streets.

View the FP photo essay on Egypt's "Day of Rage."

Shadi Hamid: How Obama Got Egypt Wrong

Sherif Mansour: It's Freedom, Stupid

Emad Shahin: Obama Still Doesn't Know What To Do About Arab Autocrats

Daniel Brumberg: Mubarak Is Prepared to Fight

Nathan Brown: Speak Softly, But Sweet Talk Them Out of Using a Big Stick

As the Egyptian regime totters, the Obama administration has largely scrambled to stay one step ahead of the curve. It managed to put just the right amount of steadily increasing distance between it and the regime that has served as a pillar of American policy under eight U.S. presidents.  The close U.S.-Egyptian relationship is not popular in Egypt, but the fancy American footwork allowed the United States to avoid becoming a prominent issue for the mushrooming crowds of demonstrators. Its statements have also likely helped communicate (if more evidence was needed -- and it should not have been) to an aloof Egyptian leadership how rapidly its position is crumbling.

But a couple days of carefully calibrating statements do not amount to a new policy. The United States has long-term issues at stake. And at this point almost any outcome is possible -- continued unrest, a gentle retirement for Mubarak when his term ends later this year, a broad-based transitional leadership, regime collapse, and even a return to stagnation. We need to make policy with an eye on the long-term without knowing what tomorrow will bring. 

Nothing is resolved in Egypt. In perhaps the most important speech he would ever give, Egypt's Mubarak offered Egyptians two things: the possibility of positive change and a stable and secure framework. The first offer was not credible; simply dismissing the cabinet and issuing vague pledges of providing jobs was hardly enough to convince a very skeptical audience. If Mubarak is to salvage his presidency, much, much more will be needed.

And the second offer, security and stability, showed profound misunderstanding of the Egyptian system as so many citizens have experienced it. While in the 1980s, Mubarak's "stability" was welcome, today it reeks of stagnation, cronyism, sycophancy, and slow decay.  A promise of "security" rings hollow because it is precisely the tools that carry the security label-brutal police, unaccountable security services, emergency rule that is older than most Egyptian grandparents, and deadening corruption of political life-that make Egyptians feel resentful and, yes, insecure. In the past few days, it is the so-called security forces that have been the source of violence against the society they are supposed to protect. Actually, that phenomenon is not new; it has only moved in front of television cameras.

I earlier described the Egyptian regime as one that lacked legitimacy but was able to continue largely by making itself appear inevitable. A few days of demonstrations have led Egyptians and the world to see it as shaky indeed.  But how shaky? And if it begins to fall, what will happen?

There are a few things that are clear for the present. First, we need to remind ourselves constantly that while this is a critical moment, it is primarily an Egyptian moment with primarily Egyptian players. We therefore should simply ignore those voices who insist on understanding events only in terms of U.S. domestic politics. The Obama administration has sensibly refrained from taking credit for events; its supporters should do the same even if we do have an outcome that we deem positive. And if Obama's critics react (as some have begun to do) by bouncing between blaming him for allowing Islamists to glimpse power and timidity in the face of an autocrat, we should tune them out.

Nor is this a time to succumb to Ikwanophobia. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is a player in events, but not the primary one. If it emerges as a more savvy and influential political player, that is a positive development for Egypt -- so long as it is one player among many others.  Egypt's rulers missed an opportunity to build a healthier political system that incorporated more actors earlier in this decade, deciding to shore up cronyism and autocracy rather than pluralism and democracy. Egyptians may now have a second chance. 

Can the United States help Egyptians grasp that second chance? Yes, but only to a limited extent. We can make clear that we will deal with all Egyptian political players and not choose one as our favorite and designate another one as a pariah. We must at all costs avoid defining democracy as a political system in which our party wins -- and that is not easy when we are saddled with a political vocabulary that often terms any political force we do not like as undemocratic. 

For all its flaws -- and they are many -- Egyptian authoritarianism is less stultifying than Tunisia's. It has been a bit more open; there is a far more vital political sphere; there are known political actors (most, however, with anemic constituencies); and Egyptians are used to exchanging a rich variety of political views. That means we know this society much better than many others in the region. We even have selected points of entry to important segments of Egyptian society-close relations on a diplomatic level, some active business ties, and some military-to-military contacts, and we can use those to communicate that we are willing to work with a more pluralist political order.  

Such flexibility may get us through the next few months. But we need to use that time to do some hard thinking. The basic elements of American policy were built to reflect the realities of the 1970s through the 1990s. But they are now outmoded. The past few years have witnessed the death of the peace process; this year may be witnessing the passing of at least two formerly inevitable regimes. It is past time to acknowledge that the region we are dealing with is changing in some fundamental -- but still inchoate -- ways.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Shadi Hamid: How Obama Got Egypt Wrong

The Obama administration's initial response to the ongoing Egyptian revolt was  disappointing, but not surprising. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps unwittingly, conveyed the essential thrust of U.S. policy Tuesday when she called the Egyptian regime "stable." For decades, the United States has prioritized a now clearly illusory stability over American ideals. It appears the administration, slowly, is realizing its mistake -- and that of its predecessors. President Obama's remarks earlier today --  in which he spoke of the universal rights of the Egyptian people - suggested a possible shift in tone. This, however, may prove a perfect example of "too little, too late."

Those who propose the United States somehow adopt an approach of "noninterference" should remember that silence will be interpreted as complicity by Egyptians. America, after all, far from a bystander, is the Egyptian regime's primary benefactor. The billions it has given Egypt in economic and military aid means that the United States, more than any other country, enjoys significant leverage with Egypt. Now is the time to use it.

For starters, stronger rhetoric is necessary. This is not the time for expressions of "concern." The gravity of the situation, and the sacrifices of the protesters, requires a more appropriate language. It is worth looking back at the "color revolutions" of Eastern Europe for inspiration. During Ukraine's second round of (fraudulent) elections in 2004, then Secretary of State Colin Powell said the following: "If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly, there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine's hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration, and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud."

What should the goal of U.S. pressure be? First, to prevent the Egyptian regime from using excessive force, to permit protesters the right to peacefully assemble, and to ensure that what happened Friday -- an unprecedented blockage of Internet and mobile services-- does not happen again. It should then be made clear that the U.S.-Egypt relationship will suffer if those expectations are not met. This, for example, may include cutting military aid.

America was rightly credited for playing a significant role in facilitating democratic transitions in Ukraine as well as Georgia and Serbia (though the follow-through may have been lacking). If the United States is seen as helping make another transition possible, this time in Egypt, it will give Americans much-needed credibility in the region. Successful transitions in Egypt and Tunisia could herald a reimagined relationship between the United States and the Arab world, as Obama promised in his 2009 Cairo address, titled "A New Beginning."

Lastly, no one should underestimate the crucial role of international actors. Rarely do successful democratic transitions occur without constructive engagement from Western governments and organizations.

Of course, a major question remains: does the United States, in fact, want real democracy in Egypt? Or would it prefer that the current regime -- perhaps after agreeing to reforms -- somehow stay in power? Answering that may be one of the most important things President Obama does this year.  

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Sherif Mansour: It's Freedom, Stupid

There's only one lesson that American foreign policymakers should take from recent events in Tunisia and Egypt: freedom matters. The United States has continually supported Mubarak and other oppressive regimes in the region, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Obama administration it finds itself between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose whether to support the ideals of freedom and democracy it espouses and run the risk that in the aftermath, the United States will have lost its allies in the region, or stick with the devil it knows.

If the administration is smart, it will see the writing on the wall and realize that the old order in Egypt, and conceivably the rest of the Middle East, is gone forever. When the smoke clears, Washington will want to be on the right side of history. The United States must now withdraw its support, both financial and symbolic, from the Mubarak regime and avoid any further ties to its oppression.

The retreat of the police force in the major cities Friday indicates the end of the oldest and most repressive police state in the Middle East region. Obama should publicly acknowledge this fact. The Egyptian people have spoken, and the Egyptian regime should follow the police into the dustbin of history. The Egyptian army shouldn't replace police's role in repressing demonstrators, but rather ensure that the Egyptian people's aspirations for freedom and democracy and dignity are met.

Most of all, Obama should make his actions speak louder than words. In these moments of truth, the United States should always take the side of the people. It should offer its help in building democratic institutions while refraining from endorsing any particular candidate or party. It should freeze its foreign-aid package to Egypt until a more just, transparent, and accountable government is in place.

Moreover, Obama should move before it is too late. More important than what the U.S. president says is when he says it. For two years, Egypt experts have urged Obama to put greater pressure on the Egyptian regime, but their words fall on deaf ears. It is time for Obama to respond like he did in Tunisia and hail the courage of the Egyptian people -- but before Mubarak's regime utterly collapses, because at that point it will be too late.

Sherif Mansour is senior programs officer at Freedom House.

Emad Shahin: Obama Still Doesn't Know What To Do About Arab Autocrats

President Obama, in his State of the Union address this week, assured Tunisians and the people of the Middle East of America's support of their democratic aspirations. Yet, on her statement on the same day on the popular protests in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Hosni Mubarak's government as "stable" and said it was "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." This apparent contradiction clearly demonstrates that when it comes to aspiration of democratic changes in the Arab world, the U.S. administration is completely out of touch with reality.

The reality is that Mubarak's government seems stable thanks only to massive repression, his disempowering of civil society, and the financial and security support of his Western allies. This is not a different reality from the one shared by other U.S. allies in the region, such as Jordan, Tunisia, and Yemen, all of which are now challenged by massive demonstrations.

It is clear that the United States has been taken by surprise by the extent of the popular anger. To catch up with the quickly unfolding events, it has been sending mixed messages to close allies and their angry populations alike. With rhetoric oscillating between pragmatic realism and Jeffersonian idealism, the Obama administration has expressed willingness to help the regimes carry out necessary reforms; urged all parties to refrain from violence; and acknowledge the "universal" rights of the people. The real story is that the United States, and, for that matter the European Union, is still conducting business as usual and wants to see social, economic, and political reform take place from within the existing regime.

But how about what the people want? And can the United States afford to ignore, or underestimate the message these angry citizens are trying to send? The people of the region are fed up with decades of repression, corruption, and humiliation. Their demands are clear: a total break with an authoritarian past and a new beginning of freedom, social justice, and dignity.

The Obama administration needs to realize that it cannot thread the needle. The status quo is hard -- if not impossible -- to sustain. These protests are unprecedented in intensity and in the unyielding nature of their agenda. Driven by frustrated youth, they involve a wider swath of society and embrace economic and political goals that cannot easily be separated, as in past protests.

U.S. support for Middle East dictators has spawned deep anti-American sentiments in the Arab world, and chaotic Iraq and Afghanistan hardly present an attractive model. The best thing the United States can do now is to back off and let the peoples of the region chart their own course. Shoring up repressive rulers and denying citizens their legitimate democratic rights out of fear of change or an Islamist takeover will no longer work, if it ever did. The popular uprisings across the Arab world go beyond ideology and religion. They are about freedom, social justice and democracy. That's what America is supposed to stand for. Why should the Middle East be any different?

Emad Shahin is the Henry R. Luce associate professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Daniel Brumberg: Mubarak Is Prepared to Fight

President Hosni Mubarak is not going anywhere: that's the message of his late night televised statement.  And it is hardly surprising. Whatever we may think of him, he is not going to grab the gold and head for the hills (or sands), Ben Ali style. There is no reason to assume that he doesn't believe what he said: Mubarak views himself as a loyal Egyptian citizen who has steered a difficult course between the quest for stability and economic modernization and the exigencies of democracy. He believes that the quest for safety, jobs and security must bound the limits of freedom, or there will be chaos (fawda). He has spent his life striking this difficult balance, he told us, and thus he is not about to give up now.

That this reasoning will fall on deaf ears is something Mubarak either doesn't understand or will not tolerate. This action presages a more severe crackdown, but one that might be followed by an effort to heal wounds. Indeed, when a severe-looking Mubarak promised a "dialogue," he may have been signaling his desire to emulate previous Egyptian leaders by reaching out to the opposition after a period of discontent and renewed repression.

This cycle goes back to 1974, when Anwar Sadat initiated his "Infitah" policy. Seven years later, following his efforts to repress dissent, he was gunned down by a radical Islamist and member of the military, who proudly declared, "I have shot the Pharaoh." The man sitting next to Sadat, Vice President Mubarak, took the mantle of the presidency and then declared a new day of political reconciliation and openness.

Is it back to the future? Can Mubarak -- or indeed anyone from the top echelons of the political pyramid -- distance themselves from the very system over which they have presided for thirty years?

I have my doubts. What I am sure of  is that the mass protests of the last days have revealed a new social landscape -- one that could help turn a popular rebellion into a democratic revolution. Whether this happens through a prolonged struggle to recast liberalized autocracy from within, or a shorter street battle that topples the regime, is hard to say. But one thing is clear: Egypt's new social landscape is defined by an alliance of angry youth whose political identities cannot be reduced to religion or faith.

In making this assertion, I am not embracing the "post-Islamist" thesis that has received renewed attention since Tunisia's revolution burst on the scene. Indeed, rumors of the inevitable irrelevance of Islamists have been greatly exaggerated. But what we do have in today's Egypt, and in Tunisia as well, is the growing desire of a vulnerable urban middle class youth to bridge the gap between Islamist and non-Islamist identities and agendas.

If Islamists and non-Islamists, as well as Muslims and Copts, can join together, they will undercut the fear-mongering strategies that autocrats throughout the Arab world have long used to secure support from those groups that fear an "Islamist" takeover. This is reason enough for veteran Islamists to set aside the ambiguities that characterize their ideologies, and in so doing, fully embrace the premises and rules of democratic pluralism.

Daniel Brumberg is a senior advisor to the Center for Conflict Management at the United States Institute of Peace and co-director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.