10 Reasons Americans Should Care About the Egyptian Revolution

From the U.S. budget to Israel, from morality to Facebook, here's why you should be following the amazing events in Cairo.

If you're a reader of my blog, you probably care a lot about foreign policy and you've probably already been riveted by events in Egypt, including President Hosni Mubarak's latest attempt to cling to power by offering largely meaningless concessions. But maybe one of your friends has asked you why Americans should care at all about who is governing that country or why it matters what its political system is. Although I think one can exaggerate Egypt's importance to the United States, here are 10 reasons why Americans should care about what is happening there.

1. Money
The United States gives Egypt about $2 billion each year in economic and military aid (mostly the latter). This is partly a bribe to reinforce the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and encourage Egypt to collaborate with the United States in other ways (extraordinary rendition, anyone?). That's not a huge amount of money for a country whose economy is $13 trillion, but in these troubled budgetary times, every dollar counts. So if you care about where your money is spent and on whom, you might want to pay attention to Egypt.

Paul Richards/AFP

2. America's Reputation
Whatever strategic benefits the United States has received from the tacit alliance with Egypt (and there are some), it has also associated the country with a government that buggered elections, tortured its own people, suppressed free speech, and behaved in a lot of other unpleasant ways. Backing Mubarak at all costs thus made the United States look hypocritical at best and callous at worst. And that's why you might want to ask whether change is a good thing from America's point of view, to say nothing of the Egyptian people's.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP

3. Regional Stability
No one can say for certain how the upheaval in Cairo will affect regional events -- including the peace treaty with Israel -- but the possibility that it will have a big impact is enough reason to care about what is happening there. I'm more sanguine about this than some people are because I don't think Egypt wants to get back into the war business. But I recognize the possibility that it could have destabilizing repercussions. But that doesn't mean the United States should be propping up Mubarak at this point, because if he's doomed, America will want to have earned some goodwill with his successors (and with the Egyptian people). In any case, if you think regional stability in the Middle East is of some value, you might want to invest a little time and energy thinking about Egypt.

Karl Schumacher/AFP

4. The War on Terror
One could argue that Mubarak has been a useful partner in the war on terror, though some of the things Egypt has done (like rendition) are things America shouldn't have been doing in the first place. But more importantly, a political transition in Egypt will remove one of al Qaeda's major talking points and recruiting pitches: namely, that the United States is in cahoots with a lot of illegitimate dictatorships. And if the reform movement succeeds in revitalizing Egyptian civic and political life (not to mention the economy), al Qaeda will suffer yet another blow.

Mandel Ngan/AFP

5. Relations with Other Middle East Allies
No matter how you feel about the uprising in Egypt, it is bound to affect U.S. relations with other states in the region. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are undoubtedly worried about whether the United States is being too fickle, and Israel is clearly worried about what change in Egypt will mean for its security situation. The point is that change in Egypt is going to complicate U.S. ties with a lot of other countries (at least in the short term), and Americans ought to think a bit about that near certainty.

Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images

6. The Danger of Distraction
This reason follows from No. 5. Events in Egypt also matter because they are going to preoccupy Barack Obama's administration for a long time. And that means less time to devote to other pressing problems. In fact, one could argue that the big winner in the Egyptian upheaval is China. Why? Because this revolt will keep U.S. attention riveted on the Middle East, which means America won't be thinking and doing enough to maintain its economic competitiveness and reinforce the existing security architecture in Asia.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

7. Morality
If you think that U.S. foreign policy ought to reflect America's political values -- including support for democracy and human rights -- then obviously you care about what is happening in Egypt. Even a good realist like me thinks that morality matters, and there are even some situations (and I think this is one of them) where America's moral instincts and long-term strategic interests coincide. There is an extraordinary human drama playing out in Cairo today, and it would be nice to be on the side of the good guys for a change.


8. The Role of New Media
There has been a lively debate in recent years over whether new media (the Internet, blogosphere, Facebook, etc.) will have powerful democratizing effects. I've been somewhat skeptical of that notion (if not as skeptical as Evgeny Morozov), but Egypt is clearly an important test case for this ongoing debate. I don't think we know enough to draw any firm conclusions (i.e., it's hard to know what the relative impact of new media has been, especially when compared with legacy media operations such as Al Jazeera, pre-existing social groups, grass-roots organizing, etc.), but it would be silly to argue that it played no role at all. In short, if you care about information technology, you should be watching this one closely.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

9. Learning the Right Lessons
Because the final chapters have not been written yet, we really have no idea what lessons to draw from this experience. But we are going to want to draw some eventually, and that requires us to pay attention while it's happening. Here's one tentative lesson: Democracy promotion in the Arab world (and in lots of other places) is better achieved from the bottom up, and via indirect political means, than at the point of a rifle barrel (as in Iraq). If that lesson holds up, we ought to carve it in marble at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the American Enterprise Institute.


10. Judging Obama
Finally, Americans need to watch what is happening in Egypt because it is likely to become a political football at home. The administration has walked a wobbly tightrope for the past two weeks, seeking an outcome neither "too hot" (widespread violence, extremists in power, etc.) nor "too cold" (stability without reform). If these extremes are avoided, Obama and his team will deserve (and probably receive) kudos from most fair-minded observers, and his "no drama" approach to foreign policy will get some much-needed vindication. But if that "just right" Goldilocks outcome isn't reached, he'll face a firestorm of criticism either for "losing Egypt" or for turning a deaf ear to the Egyptian people's demands for justice and democracy. If you want to be able to judge that debate for yourself, you need to keep your eyes on Egypt (and on the administration) today.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The List

What Else Happened This Week?

Since the end of January, the world's attention has been focused squarely on the ongoing power struggle in Egypt and its ripple effects throughout the Middle East. But news didn't stop in the rest of the world. Here's a quick look at what you've been missing.

Fighting in Pakistan. Around 22,000 people have fled fighting between government troops and militants in Mohmand, a Pakistani tribal region near the Afghan border. The military offensive began on Jan. 27 and involves aerial bombing, artillery, and ground troops. Officials say that nearly 100 militants have been killed so far. The United Nations has set up two refugee camps to handle the displaced.

Mohmand has served as a staging ground for militants operating against U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan. Militant activity in the region -- including attacks on schools and checkpoints -- has been on the rise in recent months as the Pakistani military has displaced fighters from surrounding areas. The United States has long urged Pakistan to take stronger action against Taliban hideouts in the country's northwestern tribal regions.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

A Runoff in Haiti. After weeks of delays and political controversy, Haiti's electoral commission finally announced that former first lady Mirlande Manigat and popular carnival singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly will contest a runoff presidential election next month. The decision was a defeat for government-backed candidate Jude Celestin, who finished third in the initial election on Nov. 28 but had mounted a legal challenge to keep his name in the race.

Meanwhile, Haiti's exiled former leaders continued to make news as well. The government agreed to grant a diplomatic passport to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has lived in exile in France for the past seven years. The Swiss government began proceedings to seize the assets of former President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who unexpectedly returned to Haiti last month and now faces charges of corruption and crimes against humanity.


Elections in Kazakhstan. In a rapid series of political reversals this week, Kazakhstan went from the possibility of not holding a presidential election for the next 10 years to holding one in just two months. A bill under consideration by Kazakhstan's parliament would have sponsored a referendum to extend President Nursultan Nazarbayev's term until 2020, bypassing the 2012 and 2017 presidential elections and keeping Kazakhstan's only post-Soviet leader in power past his 80th birthday. On Monday, however, Nazarbayev said he supported a court ruling that the referendum would be unconstitutional, earning praise from Washington.

Nazarbayev then signed a law into effect allowing him to call early presidential elections. A vote has been scheduled for April 3. It's been suggested that Nazarbayev's reversal may have been influenced by the anti-authoritarian protests sweeping the Middle East. In any event, the early vote seems to have caught the country's already marginal opposition movement off guard. Opposition party leaders are still deciding whether they will even field a candidate.


Berlusconi squeaks by again in Italy. Embattled Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi scored a pair of much-need political victories on Thursday. First, parliament voted to deny Milan prosecutors' request to search an office used by Berlusconi's accountant for evidence that the prime minister paid for sex with a minor. Then in a late-night session, parliament passed a law pushed by Berlusconi's Northern League allies devolving tax powers to cities. Failure to pass the bill would likely have broken apart the prime minister's coalition and forced early elections.

Berlusconi's reprieve is likely to be short-lived, however. Prosecutors are expected to file charges on Monday or Tuesday alleging that he had sex with an underage prostitute and abused his position to cover it up. And the prime minister's allies also aren't exactly helping his cause: A member of parliament from his party was caught this week surfing a website for escort girls on his iPad while attending a parliamentary debate.


Murder in Uganda. Uganda's national police arrested a suspect in the murder of prominent gay rights activist David Kato. Enock Nsubuga, a 22-year-old gardener who worked for Kato, was taken into custody on Wednesday and confessed to the murder. According to police, Nsubuga claims that Kato offered to pay him for sex, but never followed through. An enraged Nsubuga then took a hammer and bludgeoned him to death last month. Police officials say the case was not a hate crime, as the primary motive was monetary, and criticized the international media for implying that the murder was related to the climate of homophobia in the country.

Kato's photo was prominently featured on a list of gay Ugandans published by a newspaper a few weeks before his death. The country's parliament is still considering a bill that would punish homosexuality with death. Chaos erupted at Kato's funeral last Friday when the pastor unexpectedly launched into a tirade against Uganda's gay community.


Corruption in India. India's former telecommunications minister and two of his aides were arrested this week in the latest of a series of corruption scandals to hit India's ruling Congress party. Andimuthu Raja is accused of selling mobile phone licenses to telecom companies at a loss to the government totalling $4.8 billion. The opposition BJP party has stalled parliament, calling for an investigation into the sale.

Raja's arrest follows widespread reports of graft during the preparations for the Commonwealth Games and allegations that apartments in a Mumbai housing project meant for veterans were given to Congress Party politicians and their relatives. The party is heading for critical elections in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu states later this year.

In any event, it may be a while before Raja's case is concluded. Another former telecom minister was convicted on corruption charges in 2009 -- 13 years after he was first arrested.


Espionage in Ireland. Ireland expelled a Russian diplomat this week over allegations that counterfeited Irish passports had been used by Russian spies. The identities of six Irish citizens were reportedly used as covers for the spy ring which was broken up in the United States last year, including the famously photogenic Anna Chapman. All of the citizens whose names were used had been granted visas by the Russian embassy in Dublin, including a volunteer with the organization To Russia With Love, which works with orphans. Russia's foreign minister has described the expulsion as a "unfounded and unfriendly act, which of course will not go without a corresponding reaction."

For whatever reason, Irish identities appear to be popular in the international espionage community. Last year, Dublin expelled an Israeli diplomat after Irish passports were reportedly used on a mission to kill a Hamas militant in Dubai.


(More) drug crime in Mexico. Drug-related violence in Northern Mexico continued unabated this week, with at least 14 people murdered over a 48-hour period in Ciudad Juarez. The casualties included a police officer, and a newspaper vendor who authorities believe was targeted because she was seen as a threat to the gangs' street vendor monopoly. On Thursday, the police chief of the border city of Nuevo Laredo was shot dead along with two of his bodyguards as he was being driven home. He had been on the job just 33 days.

Mexican authorities have asked for help from Interpol in the manhunt for former congressional deputy Julio Cesar Godoy Toscano. Godoy's immunity from prosecution had been stripped by Congress this week after investigators released a recorded phone conversation between him and a member of the La Familia drug cartel. Godoy had been sworn into Congress in September, despite an outstanding arrest warrant filed against him.

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions easing between the Koreas. South Korea and North Korea have agreed to hold military talks next month. This will be the first official meeting between the two sides since North Korean artillery fired on a South Korean island in November, killing four people. In a further sign of the easing tensions on the peninsula, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said for the first time that he would consider a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Both Seoul and the Washington have said that substantive inter-Korean talks are a prerequisite for a resumption of the six-party nuclear negotiations.

Speaking on television, Lee said that unlike previous rounds of talks, the upcoming meetings would not result in aid or concessions from the South. He described North Korea's call for negotiations as a "typical tactic, overused in the past."

As for the North Koreans, they've been quiet lately, the biggest news consisting of speculation over furry hats.


A prime minister in Nepal. After seven months of gridlock and leadership vacuum following inconclusive elections, Nepal finally has a prime minister. Jhala Nath Khanal of the Unified Marxist Leninist party got the job after 16 rounds of voting. Khanal received last-minute backing from the Unified Communist Party, the Maoist grouping. While considered a moderate communist, Khanal will likely be far more receptive than the previous government to Maoist goals, which include radical land reforms and the banning of "antinationalist'" political parties.

Nepal still hasn't completed the peace process that began in 2006, when the Maoists laid down their arms. The fate of thousands of former Maoist fighters living in temporary camps hasn't been decided. A new constitution, begun after the abolition of the country's Hindu monarchy, was due to be completed last May but has been held up by political disputes.