Foreign Policy Blogs

Crisis and Opportunity: Next Steps on Egypt

The “Arab Revolt of 2011” continues to roil, and events are moving so quickly that the Egyptian Revolution that so shocked the world has already mostly fallen to a secondary headline following reports of what is effectively a civil war and humanitarian crisis in neighboring Libya.  And yet, Egypt still matters quite a lot as much continues to be at stake.

The Egyptian Revolution was historic for a number of reasons, including Egypt’s size, traditional position within the Arab World, and the sheer spectacle of the thing, which unfolded over 18 days in rollercoaster fashion on international television.  But the Egyptian Revolution is also significant for another reason: it upset the balance of U.S. strategy in the region.

Crisis and Opportunity: Next Steps on Egypt

(Credit: The Atlantic, Google Images)

The event was a real conundrum for the Obama Administration and would have been for any other too.  On one hand, the Mubarak regime suppressed Islamic terrorism and mitigated the risk of a regional war by maintaining the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.  On the other, the U.S. has historically defended human rights and promoted free societies as the best long-term way to foster global stability and prosperity.  Supporting Mubarak meant destroying its credibility on these issues in the pursuit of short-term security; abandoning Mubarak meant risking political and economic chaos and appearing as a faithless friend to an ally in need—something that could poison other alliances.

The Obama Administration was initially confounded by the dilemma because it understood that “backing the wrong horse” would likely lead to a permanent rift between the U.S. and the winning party, be it Mubarak or the protesters.  There was no perfect result for the U.S., and the administration crafted its policy on a day-to-day basis to deal with the changing political environment there, attempting to “surf the wave of history”.  In the event, Mubarak stepped down and the military assumed the reins of government until such time as elections can be held; it remains to be seen if, when and how that will happen.

The story of the Egyptian Revolution is far from over.  As Gelb, Ferguson and others have noted, the fact that elections are slated to be held guarantees no outcome whatsoever; there is no telling whether Egypt will be favorably inclined or hostile to the U.S. even a year from now. It would be a very significant setback if the latter.  With that in mind, the U.S. can and should be fastidious in guiding the transition from the current system into a more stable, functioning state interested in continuing on as an American ally; otherwise, it runs the risk of watching it slide into either military dictatorship or political chaos.

This reminds me of a recent article in The American Interest by A. Wess Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel in which the authors argue that if the U.S. becomes less assertive, the likelihood of instability in the peripheral countries of the world will increase as a variety of actors test the limits of how much they can get away with before the U.S. intervenes—the old “while-the-cat’s-away-the-mice-will-play” phenomenon.  Mitchell and Grygiel weren’t talking about domestic uprisings like the Egyptian Revolution in their piece, but their broader point applies: the countries of the world watch how the U.S. handles crises and measures their actions accordingly.  They also watch how it treats its friends.

To this point, the premise underpinning the administration’s foreign policy has been that global security can best be assured by bolstering adherence to international legal regimes and improving relations among the other great powers.  With the exception of the inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran (both challenges to the administration’s signature foreign policy goal of strengthening the international nonproliferation regime), the Obama Administration has been very quiet with respect to the non-great power world.  Further, these are all examples of U.S. power involving either conflict, threats or sanctions – a very one-dimensional picture of U.S. capabilities.

In Egypt, the administration has an opportunity to offer a positive demonstration of the benefits of partnership with the U.S., including assistance with political and economic capacity-building at least at the government level to help the current and future Egyptian governments be better equipped to deliver what Mubarak could not and would not: personal security and opportunity.  Success in this effort would increase regional stability and provide an opportunity to build a long-term partnership with the new Egypt.

Things are changing in the Arab World, but it need not necessarily all be thought of as crisis.  There is quite a bit of opportunity there as well, and it’s one the Obama Administration should seize.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.