Egypt: a pretty pickle for America

Unrest continues in Egypt, sparked by the overthrow of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia. Egyptians want an end to the repressive regime of "President" Hosni Mubarak. Here in Vienna, protesters held up banners at Stephansplatz, the city's central square. The banners demanded "freedom for Egypt" and decried US and EU support for the Mubarak regime.

It looks like Egypt could conceivably head towards democracy. So why aren't the US and European countries rushing to push for this? The West's support for a repressive regime in Egypt began after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Then Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat, facing a nearly bankrupt state, civil unrest, and an Israeli occupation of much of its territory, realized that his only hope for a solution to all these interrelated problems was to get the US interested in the matter. He ejected Soviet military advisors from Egypt. It didn't help. In 1973, he started a war with Israel and gained back some territory. He stopped short, however, thinking international diplomacy would take it from there. Instead, this gave Israel time to regroup. It fought back and made large gains. The Camp David Accords settled the matter, for the most part, giving Egypt back the Sinai Peninsula. This was seen as a sell-out by much of the Arab world. Egypt thus became politically isolated from the rest of the Middle East. This meant it was more reliant on the US.

The US, for its part, was now more interested in providing support because of a simple calculus: if Egypt had continued to move forward, the US might have gotten dragged into a war on Israel's side. This might have brought in the Soviet Union on Egypt's side. This could have happened the other way around as well. No one wanted a direct war between the US and USSR. The US, from the 1970s on, took a closer interest in the Middle East and supported Egypt as a military power to help maintain stability in the region. This was useful as Iran's revolution meant that it turned away from the US. Egypt and later Saudi Arabia began to be seen as bulwarks against instability and terrorism.

Things have changed a bit. What to do? The alliance with Mubarak has always been an uncomfortable one of convenience. The US promotes democracy where it can, but must consider when it may be better to promote stability over democracy. Stability may not longer be viable in Egypt, so perhaps the US can support stability by supporting democracy -- carefully.

US policymakers are worried about the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas, a Palestinian terror group-cum-political party (and rulers of the Gaza Strip), is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of its members are extremist. They would probably win an election in Egypt. The problem is: there's a good possibility that they would only have ONE election. Then we'd have a repressive regime again, but one that is also anti-American.

Maybe this is inevitable. Give the people of Egypt the chance to choose for themselves. In the long run, having a repressive regime that was NOT kept alive by America would be a good thing, and would help America out of the cognitive dissonance caused by propping up an authoritarian regime. Egyptians might then no longer see America as the enemy behind the scenes. The current regime, regardless of the outcome of the current unrest, is not sustainable, in any case. Perhaps the US can provide careful support and midwife true democracy? Sound overly optimistic?

Sources: and

Cleveland, William, and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. 4. ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2009. 


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