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.