As Egypt descends into greater chaos, the United States is left in the awkward position that generally befalls great powers when their dictator friends are driven from power. The tension between realist foreign policy and liberal democracy promotion is never starker. Whether to support the faltering Mubarak regime or defend the revolutionary movement’s democratic principles is the question that commands the discussion and astoundingly, in our increasingly partisan climate, has no party loyalty.
The arguments criss-cross the political landscape. For instance, the Washington Post’s liberal commentator, Richard Cohen, has told the Obama administration to “just shut up.” One of Israel’s leading papers, Ha’aretz, criticizes the president claiming “Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who ‘lost’ Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.” Alternatively, William Kristol, at the neoconservative Weekly Standard, urges Obama to do more to support the removal of the Egyptian leadership. Likewise, Francis Fukuyama argues that "liberals had better get organized" to build a new Egypt.
Understandably, the administration is cautious. The United States’ course of action could have severe implications for the fate of the region and American interests. However, a reluctance to place all bets on one side or the other is not the same as inaction. While in recent days the president has, after Mubarak effectively tendered his upcoming resignation (he will not run for reelection in September), come out in support of a peaceful transition, the administration has failed to develop a successful political stance that will allow the best possible result for Egypt and America’s interests. Instead, it largely remains on the sidelines, watching and waiting.
The tension between courses of action is clear. On the one hand, there is security in stability. Hosni Mubarak, for all his domestic flaws, is a known entity. He has been a reliable ally and supposedly kept the worst enemies – currently the Muslim Brotherhood – from dominating Egypt. (This is debatable as some argue that he has aided the Brotherhood’s cause in order to have a bogeyman that will maintain America’s support for his regime.) Since the most established political opposition consists of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the fear is that Mubarak’s fall will lead to an Islamist state, reminiscent of the Iranian regime which overthrew the Shah in 1979 and remains in power today. Proponents of supporting Mubarak fear the worst outcome – replacing a friendly, undemocratic dictator with an unfriendly, (nominally) democratic, Islamist state.
This stands in sharp contrast to the principle of democracy-promotion, which emphasizes the spread of liberal values that so many Americans hold dear. These arguments, which come both from the left and the neocon right, argue that establishing true democracy is, in addition to being morally right, necessary for US security. From this perspective, steps should be taken to facilitate and aid the pro-democracy forces, allowing the dictatorship to be replaced with a system that will not only be democratic, but remain friendly to the West.
The US is thus stuck in an uncomfortable position. If it backs Mubarak, it will be accused of abandoning its principles and solidify its label as an enemy of the Egyptian people. If the current regime – with or without Mubarak – maintains power, the US will “win” in the short-run, yet inevitably rack-up indubitable costs to be paid when the regime ultimately falters. On the other hand, if despite US support for the regime, the revolution wins the fight, the Muslim Brotherhood will gather enough fodder to portray the clash as the West versus Islam, all but solidifying their ascent.
Conversely, if the administration completely abandons the Egyptian leadership, throwing its weight behind the revolution, it runs the risk of opening a Pandora’s Box of unknown consequences. The revolution could turn in favor of the Brotherhood or take a more Western-oriented path to democracy. Furthermore, such vocalized support from America could have a wider effect of destabilizing the regimes across the Middle East. The unknowns are incalculable and potential deadly.
So what is the administration to do? Certainly, it cannot, as Cohen argues, just sit on the sidelines and watch. Instead, it must do what it can to coax the best possible outcome, namely a liberal democracy, while minimizing the likelihood of the worst outcome, an Islamist state run by the Muslim Brotherhood. For better or worse, the middle outcome – a Western allied dictatorship – is no longer an option. Even if the current regime hangs on through this upheaval, it will only be a matter of time before the people rise again.
Practically, the administration needs to express the need for institutionalized democracy. The US (and Europe) must lend support to anyone within Egypt who desires to build democratic institutions. Institutions that provide checks and balances and diffusion of power must be established. This will give structure to an emerging democracy, put the US on the side of the people (as it should be), and limit the power of those non-democratic elements to exchange a Western-friendly dictatorship for an antagonistic dictatorship of Sharia. (To be clear, a government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, even if popularly elected would be no democracy. As Hamas’s election in the Gaza Strip clearly shows, a democracy is much more than simply voting.) While admittedly this path should have been taken years ago, it is not too late for the United States to show that it is willing to help the Egyptians achieve a system based on the noble principles which America represents.
The US need not come out for or against Mubarak. Nor should it back individuals or specific groups with the opposition. There does not need to be an Egyptian Nouri al-Maliki or Hamid Karzai; in fact it is probably better if such an individual does not exist. While Mohammad al-Baradei is weakly touted as the one to fill this role, the US would be wise not to cultivate the next leader of Egypt but to stand with the people and their desire for a new system. The focus should be on encouraging the construction of viable institutions that will lead to a stable democracy in whatever fashion the Egyptians choose to build such a system. The US's approach should not be about individuals or groups; we should not be picking winners or losers for the Egyptians, but about helping them convert the principles that we, and apparently they, value into living, breathing institutions.
Not only will this show the average Egyptian that the US does care about their plight, thus minimizing the rallying cry of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it will greatly contribute to the US’s security. While the transition may be scary, it is far better to have a democracy in Egypt than a dictatorship, which not only commits abuses but is prone to failure (as we are now seeing). The more the US fails to recognize that its security is better served by developing democracy, in a careful manner, the greater the likelihood is that it continues to bolster the very enemies which will one day seize power and stand in opposition to the West. Just as it is in America, power is vested in the people, whether they are temporarily stripped of it or not. By supporting their cause, we silence those who despise us, and achieve both the moral and the secure outcome.
Tranisitions to democracy always have risks and unknowns. It took the United States over 200 years to build its system and its work is not done. But these risks, in the long-run, are worth it. Where our democracy building has failed is in the top-down approach, rather than benevolent assistance at the grassroots in aiding the development of institutions. However, if we are honest with ourselves and the application of our principles, we need not fear a tradeoff between security and promotion of democracy. In fact they become intricately linked. Allowing Egypt to change its course, does not mean letting a revolution run rampant, but playing an active role in directing its flow. Damming up this energy, as was recently allowed to happen in Iran, will only hurt American interests in the end.