Sometime over the past thirty years, the United States’ relationship with Egypt went toxic. Committed? Absolutely. But a healthy fear of the unknown kept our government from leaving a long-troubled marriage of convenience.
Now, from the rubble of the oppression, the dream of democracy has emerged. However, this creative vision for Egypt’s future demands all parties escape the confines of their political comfort zone to embrace the unfamiliar and the unknown. Egyptians have taken to this task with gusto, yet American pundits, politicos, and policymakers are quietly loathe to abandon their anchor ties to Mubarak’s last gasp.
As deliberations between Egyptian oligarchy and opposition begin in earnest, we seem most comfortable favoring change and democracy – but only when we manage that change. Issues and implications for the Middle East peace process have dominated this discussion.
The news from Egypt is alarming. Her role as America’s Arabian proxy is sure to change. Violent attacks on pro-democracy protestors are alarming, to say nothing of the heavy toll this has had on the domestic economy. A revolution ignited by a Tunisian street vendor’s passionate dissent of government interference and corruption has spread across the region. The last pharaoh is poised to fall, and his country’s response will serve as bellwether for the future of the Arab world.
There are concerns about what the US will do if the democratic process to replace Mubarak creates a governing majority that is not accommodating to American interests. It is also possible that the new government may maintain close ties to the United States, while failing to protect minority groups and the rights of women. Likewise, there are fears that post-Mubarak Egypt may be openly hostile to Israel. Some frantic observers have gone so far as to draw hysterical allusions to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the potential creation of a radical Arab state.
Of course, all sights are set on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is widely regarded as Egypt’s most organized opposition force and a fierce opponent of America’s regional ambitions. They have now achieved political legitimacy, as well. After three decades in the proverbial wilderness, formally outlawed yet quietly tolerated, the Egyptian government offered the Brotherhood a seat at Vice-President Omar Suleiman’s table, as Mubarak’s new frontman meets with the opposition. Halting progress and abruptly muted calls for Mubarak’s dismissal prompted Brotherhood officials’ vow to continue the protests until the president resigns. As the Muslim Brotherhood’s reemergence fuels the political furnace in Cairo, American policymakers and their Israeli allies share concerns that Egyptian governance could fall to an Islamic takeover worthy of Gaza. They fear the Islamization of the largest Arab state will splinter Camp David’s fragile olive branch, foreshadowing the collapse of regional stability.
These are legitimate concerns. However, one must question the presumption that American interventionism enhances our national security. The assertion that the US must take action in Egypt is assumed, but it is neither our duty nor our burden to crown kings, or tyrants, in foreign lands.
For decades, we have made foreign policy decisions based on what local autocrat was willing to work most effectively within the framework of our demands. Fair enough, during the Cold War when a rival superpower was championing Soviet imperialism at gunpoint. Now, it is high time we recognize that interventionism has consequences, including the coalescence of countervailing alliances, the proliferation of WMD, and terrorism. As governments in the Arab world clamp down on demonstrations inspired by Egypt’s velvet revolution, assumptions that the establishment of unpopular American proxies enhances international security must be challenged.
Our efforts to change the character of the Middle East through the exportation of American interests are historically ignorant and symptomatic of generational audacity. Now, we have the opportunity to sit back and allow the people of Tunisia and Egypt to provide a new model for peaceful transition in the Middle East. Many groups throughout the region may not be immediately palatable to Washington, but they all need a place at the table as dialogue develops and governance takes shape.
Short of that, we may have to depend on the Muslim Brotherhood’s disinclination to adopt U.S. policy directives to save us from ourselves. But, as we have seen on the streets of Cairo, most Arabs are moderate, peaceful centrists so that probably will not be the case.
In other words, we will just have to depend on their best judgment, while exercising a little restraint, ourselves.