The situation in Egypt is continuing to spiral out of control. The latest reports state that 73 people have been killed since Friday and 2000 have been injured. According to Fox News and the Associate Press:
After five days of protests, Cairo was engulfed in chaos. There was rampant looting and lawlessness was spreading fast. Residents of affluent neighborhoods were boarding up their houses against gangs of thugs roaming the streets with knives and sticks and gunfire was heard in some neighborhoods.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers fanned out across the city of 18 million, guarding key government buildings. Egyptian television reported the army was deploying reinforcements to neighborhoods to try to control the lawlessness.
The military was protecting major tourist and archaeological sites such as the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the country’s most treasured antiquities, as well as the Cabinet building. The military closed the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo — Egypt’s premiere tourist site.
So what should the Obama administration do? Calling for free and fair elections might be in line with US. pro-democracy sentiment, but the results of an election might not work out so well for U.S. interests in the Middle East. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Egyptian politics, so I’ll defer to the experts.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense K.T. McFarland suggests that the U.S. government “make sure that “what happens next” are pro-western governments with strong ties to the U.S.” She goes on to say:
The Obama administration must proceed very carefully because what happens next in Egypt will affect U.S. interests now and for years to come.
From what we can tell, the Egyptians taking to the streets in Cairo appear to be young, well-educated, and pro-democracy. They’re demanding economic and political reforms for a country that has been ruled for 30 years by a dictator who is corrupt and incompetent and has left their country in economic chaos.
They are NOT – at this point – motivated by religion. They do NOT want to replace President Mubarak with an Islamic regime of ayatollahs.
But, as happened with Iran in 1978 when the Shah was toppled, what started as a pro-democracy movement can very quickly be brushed aside by radical Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
In revolutions, the group that ultimately prevails is often the one that is better organized and more ruthless in eliminating its rivals.
We shouldn’t pull out the rug from the Mubarak government, like President Carter did with the Shah of Iran. But we shouldn’t prop them it up either.
We should be talking, frequently, with both sides. If the Mubarak government does fall, it could be replaced by a pro-democracy government, perhaps headed by Nobel Laureate Mohammed El-Baradei.
That’s when the .U.S must rush to Egypt’s side with aid, support, encouragement. And President Obama, who made an historic speech at Cairo University two years ago urging reform and democracy, is uniquely situated to do so.
The Washington Post asked a bunch of foreign policy experts what they think Obama should do. Some of their suggestions:
Steven Heydemann: The administration has an extraordinary opportunity to reinvigorate support for democratic reform in the Arab world. For decades, supporters of reform have struggled to make a convincing case that Arab democracy is in America’s interest. Fear of Islam and a strong preference for stability have long trumped arguments about the damage to U.S. interests of supporting authoritarian regimes. The recent uprisings demonstrate just how misguided these calculations have been.
Stephan Hadley: If the Egyptian government survives the current violence, even Mubarak may conclude that neither he nor his son can win the presidential elections scheduled to be held later this year. He will face a choice. Will he seek to transfer power to another authoritarian strongman or midwife a transition to democracy? Will he encourage the civil society and non-Islamist political parties that could give the Egyptian people real choices for a democratic future? Let us hope and urge President Mubarak to make this latter choice.
Danielle Pletka: There are three choices on foreign policy at any given time: to lead, to react or to be indifferent. When it comes to the question of human freedom, the Obama administration (and, before it, the Bush administration in its latter years) chose indifference. That is how we now find ourselves on the wrong side of history, watching the people of the Middle East as they stand against American-financed and -supported dictators. We have always had the chance to right our ways and to use our great moral, diplomatic and economic suasion to push for increased openness in the region, but other priorities – and the establishment’s love affair with “stability” – have taken precedence. The president himself needs to stand up and unequivocally make clear America’s position: in favor of the people over their oppressors. Suspend aid to the Egyptian government. Initiate an immediate review of all programs in the Middle East. Get the word out to our diplomats. Now.
Marina Ottoway: Washington must get off the fence and choose whether it wants to support democracy, and thus be on the side of Arab publics enraged by decades of repression, or whether it wants to continue supporting regimes that have been repressive for decades in the name of ill-defined strategic interests. It cannot do both. The United States’ long-term interests would be best served by supporting unequivocally the messy process of democratic change.
So there you go. Let’s hope Obama does a good job on this. Too much is at stake to put partisan politics ahead of U.S. interests in the Middle East and the human rights of the Egyptian people.