article

01.29.11

Why Washington Can't Stop Egypt's Revolution

The turmoil in Egypt is the inevitable result of a government that placated Washington for years in defiance of the wishes of its own people.

The turmoil in Egypt is the inevitable result of a government that placated Washington for years in defiance of the wishes of its own people. Plus, full coverage of the uprising in Egypt

The end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt portends fundamental change throughout the Middle East and the end of the American era in the region. Mubarak was the archetype authoritarian that Washington has relied upon to help maintain a regional political order that made it relatively easy to exercise American power. The Egyptian strongman kept the peace with Israel, the Suez Canal open, and the Islamists down. If he was often brutal without being repressive in the ways of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or the late Syrian leader, Hafiz al Assad, all the better. Mubarak’s disdain for his people, who never much liked the regime’s alignment with the United States—and by association, Israel—was hardly troublesome to Washington in light of the strategic benefits the Egyptian leader provided. The logic of U.S.-Middle East policy has run into the hard realities of political alienation, limited economic opportunities, and raw anger at the corruption and arrogance of Washington’s allies.

It is no wonder that the Obama administration is struggling with a response to the Egyptian revolution. Without Mubarak and Egypt, Washington is left with the mercurial Saudis—who, while enjoying the umbrella of American security, enable extremist ideologies that threaten the United States—a weak Jordan, the small Gulf states, Morocco, which is on the edge of the Arab world, and Israel. This ragtag lot of allies hardly inspires awe. The changes coming to Egypt have important consequences, though not necessarily in ways that American officials and the news media seem to be worried about, including the rise of Islamists or the abrogation of peace with Israel. Both are good story angles and should not be totally dismissed, but there are more fundamental changes in the offing.

Whatever happens in Egypt and other countries in the region that are confronting domestic unrest, new leaders will need to demonstrate a break from the previous order in an effort to hold onto and consolidate their power. It is here where the United States is going to run into trouble even if—as many are demanding—Washington makes a strong statement of support for the aspirations of the Egyptian people. Although precious little has been said about the United States on Egyptian streets this week, when the dust settles Egyptians will be taking stock of the Mubarak period and the relationship with Washington is not likely to be a bright spot. To be sure, the United States has contributed mightily to Egypt’s development in everything from road building and rural electrification to health care. Still, there are many Egyptians who believe that the strategic alignment with Washington has warped Egyptian foreign policy and, as a consequence, undermined Cairo’s traditional regional influence.

The defining example of this was another large demonstration eight years ago in Cairo that coincided with the American invasion of Iraq. The demonstrators predictably assailed the Bush administration, and the Israelis for good measure, but then took the opportunity to denounce President Mubarak and his then-presumptive heir, Gamal Mubarak, for defying public opinion and doing nothing of consequence to prevent the attack. For the protesters that day, a democratic Egypt would have resisted the predatory policies of the United States in the region rather than, as it turned out, quietly enabling them.

Photos: Egypt Protests

This echo from the recent past should be a warning to the Obama administration that it is bound to confront significant challenges in its bilateral relations with Egypt and other Arab countries. Even leaders in those countries that have not experienced the dramatic events in Egypt will now want to signal that they are responsive to public opinion. Is this transparent? Absolutely. Does that matter? Not at all, but for those leaders who are looking to avoid something akin to Mubarak’s ignominious downfall it will be hard to resist the populist mantle. Unfortunately for American policymakers, the United States is an inviting target given its manifest unpopularity throughout the region. This is not to suggest that democratic development is a bad thing, but that the new normal in the Middle East is going to be far more difficult to navigate without a pliant Egypt and a slew of nervous clients.

When the dust settles Egyptians will be taking stock of the Mubarak period and the relationship with Washington is not likely to be a bright spot.

The natural inclination in Washington will be to seek some way to influence the process of change so that it is less damaging to U.S. interests. Forget it. There is nothing Washington can do. Change is coming to the Arab world because of its own internal problems and contradictions. Arabs are writing their own narrative and Washington would do well to make a strong statement in favor of the democratic aspiration of the people and then back off. Washington should expend its diplomatic efforts accommodating itself to the realities of a changed Middle East, not trying to change it.

Steven A. Cook (@ stevenacook) is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of a blog called “ From the Potomac to the Euphrates” on CFR.org.