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Issue #15, Winter 2010
The Cairo Conundrum
Egypt is the linchpin to America’s Middle East policy—a policy that must make interests reinforce ideals, rather than conflict with them.
Shadi Hamid
Of course, dialogue is a means, not an end. Once enough trust is developed, U.S. officials and the Brotherhood can move from discussing ideas to discussing shared interests. If there are ever free elections in Egypt, Islamists would stand a good chance of winning either a plurality or a majority (even with government rigging, they won well over half of the seats they contested in the 2005 elections). Truly free elections necessarily imply a degree of uncertainty. The rise of Islamists to power could pose risks for American interests. As such, it makes sense to try to influence the Brotherhood’s positions on our strategic concerns–its position on the peace treaty with Israel for example–before it comes to power, rather than afterward, when it will be too late.
At the same time, the United States must be careful to avoid being seen as favoring one party over the other. The key is to allow a diverse range of opposition groups the opportunity to participate fully in the country’s political life. Once blocks to participation are removed–if we are able to persuade the regime to remove them–it will be up to Egyptians to decide their own political course.
Greater Expectations
In understanding what works and what doesn’t, there is an unfortunately thin history to draw on. With only one real exception–a brief period in 2004 and 2005–the United States has never made a serious effort to support democracy in the Middle East. In reality, beyond rhetoric, symbolic gestures, and relatively small increases in democracy funding, the Bush administration did not do much. Yet, even a relatively small amount of pressure can go a long way. 2005, after all, saw Egypt’s first ever mass-mobilization in support of democracy, with more than 150,000 participating in protests, demonstrations, and campaign rallies. This is a lesson worth taking to heart as the Obama Administration considers its future relationship with the Egyptian regime and the Egyptian people.
Assuming the political will is present, the policy changes outlined above can be implemented immediately. If the Administration takes the initiative on conditionality and Islamist engagement, Egypt’s leaders are likely to express dissatisfaction but little more. When the Bush Administration put pressure on Cairo to reform, Mubarak did not withhold cooperation on key strategic concerns. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment notes that “if anything, Cairo tried harder to please Washington…in the hope of relieving pressure for political reform.” Counterintuitively, then, democracy promotion, if done carefully and gradually, may actually spur increased Egyptian cooperation on Arab-Israeli peace, counterterrorism, and other interests than would otherwise be the case.
Egypt is an intuitive candidate for a strategic reorientation in U.S. policy–both risky and necessary–that emphasizes engagement not only with Arab regimes, but Arab publics as well. Unlike other countries in the region, Egypt can claim an educated urban population, a degree of political institutionalization, a legacy of parliamentary politics, and an active, occasionally assertive, civil society. As important as the government is, it is not the only constituency worth courting. Dependent on external moral and military support, the state itself, while strong, is vulnerable and sensitive to outside pressure. Considering the regional role it plays–and the potential role it still could play–a thriving and successful Egypt is critical to a thriving, successful Middle East. In this, the neoconservatives were not incorrect, although their country of choice to demonstrate a “ripple effect” was an odd one.
Just as neoconservatives got a lot wrong, progressives, in reaction, have learned some of the wrong lessons for the wrong reasons. Strong democracy rhetoric is not necessarily counterproductive, and there is little reason to think the Middle East is immune to democratic interventions. Pragmatism, the new and rather hollow progressive catch-all term, is not a substitute for well-considered policy. Nor should it obscure deeply held principles and ideals, principles that, sadly, we have so often failed to uphold in the Middle East.
In Egypt, an otherwise promising polity threatens to come apart. Egyptians, along with Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, have demonstrated their desire for substantive political change. It is time we did the same.
ISSUE #15, WINTER 2010
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Ayman Fadel:
Asking the US to promote democracy is like asking Ike Turner to take care of Tina. In any event, peoples in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere are taking events into their own hands. If the US did want to do something good, it should immediately cease all support for the National Democratic Party. I'm not holding my breath. Jan 25, 2011, 7:13 PM
Jack Roper:
The article was thoughtful and useful at time of printing. Now it seems almost mystically prescient. Thanks for Democracy printing good things. Jan 28, 2011, 2:38 PM
This article made no sense and is clearly written not to "offend" anyone. The bottom line is that the arabs want the US and the Israelis off their backs, and Mubarak is a sellout. Watching Hillary Clinton try to keep Mubarak in power is embarassing to me as an American. Jan 28, 2011, 4:52 PM
Here's a hypothetical for you all: America tells the Israelis they will reduce foreign aid over five years to a level commensurate with its Middle East neighbors. Do you think Israel would still be as bellicose to the Palestinians in five years? Jan 28, 2011, 7:01 PM
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Shadi Hamid is the deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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