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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
Anti-American anger, and the violence and terror that can result, is fueled by long-standing grievances; as long as millions of Arabs and Muslims hold them, whether those grievances are legitimate is almost beside the point. For Americans, the CIA-sponsored coup that toppled a democratically elected leader in Iran in 1953 stands as an isolated incident. Yet for many who live in the region, the coup is one part of a broader narrative: that the United States has opposed, and at times actively undermined, nascent democratic movements in the Middle East. Too many Arabs and Muslims hold the inverse of America’s opinion of itself: It is not a force for good, or even a burdened, yet flawed, protector of the international system, but rather an actor that has worked, in remarkably consistent fashion, to suppress and subjugate the people of the region.
All of this is compounded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the perception that America has unquestioningly aided Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians. There is little doubt that this perception at some level poisons nearly everything the United States does in the region. For this reason, among others, the Obama Administration decided to make the pursuit of peace a centerpiece of its Middle East policy. According to this approach, once the conflict is satisfactorily resolved, and the most important grievance removed from an otherwise long list, a truly refashioned relationship with the people of the Middle East will be possible. With lower levels of anti-Americanism and enhanced credibility, the United States will find it easier to tackle other problems.
These assumptions are not problematic in and of themselves. However, believing that a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is the missing piece may lead us to attribute greater importance to the peace process than is appropriate, and at the expense of other interests and ideals–particularly in Egypt.
The Paradox of Engagement
America needs–or thinks it needs–Egypt’s help on Israeli-Palestinian peace. And yet the more it needs Mubarak (or his son) to play a leadership role there, the more unwilling it will be to put pressure on his regime to democratize: This is the paradox of engagement.
That the pursuit of Arab peace came at the expense of Arab democracy is nothing new. Facing growing opposition to the Camp David accords, an increasingly autocratic President Anwar al-Sadat resolved to impose the agreement on the Egyptian public with no effort to build consensus and little public debate. When the agreements were sent to parliament for ratification, only 15 deputies voted no, while 55 simply chose not to show up on the day of the vote. This, apparently, was too much dissent for Sadat, who dissolved parliament and called for new elections.
Jordan, meanwhile, held free and fair parliamentary elections in 1989 for the first time in more than three decades, with Islamist and leftist opposition groups winning a majority of seats. On the eve of the next elections in 1993, King Hussein enacted a new electoral law intended to limit Islamist power at the polls while the United States looked the other way. With talk of a potential peace settlement with Israel, the king needed a pliant parliament. Indeed, one year later, with a significantly smaller opposition presence, parliament ratified the Wadi Araba Treaty with Israel. Jordanian democracy never quite recovered.
In short, the pursuit of peace came to depend on prevailing authoritarian structures. Unless autocracy can be made permanent–and there is little reason to think that it can–this state of affairs is unsustainable. If Obama wishes to repair relationships with Middle Eastern governments, then he may, in the process, alienate the other key constituency he seemed to be speaking to on June 4: the millions of everyday Arabs and Muslims hoping for more freedom and democracy.
These tensions in American policy, long latent, have become apparent. When Clinton took to Egyptian airwaves during her March trip, she told viewers that “[we] want to take our relationship to the next level.” But who was her audience–the Egyptian people or the Egyptian regime? With whom, exactly, should America engage? Usually, governments and publics are not nearly so far apart, but, in the Arab world, where ostensibly secular governments have been tasked with holding the Islamic masses at bay, the gulf is despairingly wide. It is not just a matter of differing visions of the state, but differing visions of the state’s role in the regional system. Many of these governments–in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia–are resolutely “pro-Western,” while their citizens tend to favor greater distance from American policies, and spiritedly support rejectionist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Nor do they seem to have any particular aversion to a nuclear Iran, something their governments–and the United States and Israel–view as an overriding threat.
While the Arab-Israeli conflict stands as the most obvious grievance, it is not the only one and may not even be the most important. A resolution to the conflict would be a powerful signal but, in and of itself, would offer limited immediate benefit to Egyptians, Libyans, or Algerians. A just, regional peace would be good for Egypt more for its likely consequences: It would remove one of the few plausible justifications left for the country’s enormous military budget; the regime could no longer so readily use external threats as a pretext for internal repression; and both Egypt’s leaders and citizens would be forced to focus inward instead of projecting their fears, anger, and hope onto a conflict not of their own making. In other words, peace would be good for Egyptians and other Arabs because it would facilitate internal change, and presumably democratization.
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ISSUE #15, WINTER 2010
Post a Comment

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
Usher:
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
Chris:
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
Toshiko Colarusso:
I am beginning to feel Obama's will curry favor with the Muslim world is to simply give it time to become a super caliphate which will subjugate Europe and destroy Israel.
Feb 2, 2011, 1:56 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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