After Tunisia: Obama’s Impossible Dilemma in Egypt

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Middle East just got more complicated for the Obama administration. The January 14 popular revolt in Tunisia, the first ever to topple an Arab dictator, has called into question a basic premise of U.S. policy in the Middle East – that repressive regimes, however distasteful, are at least stable. They can also be counted on to support key American interests, which is part of why the United States provides them with substantial assistance. Tunisia was considered one of the least likely to fall, but it fell. Across the region, opposition groups, hoping to repeat Tunisia’s successes, are emboldened and increasingly active. For the first time, they know what change looks like. More importantly, they now believe it can happen in their own countries. But in the growing battle between Arab autocrats and popular oppositions, the United States is finding itself torn between the reliable allies it needs and the democratic reformers it wants.

Nowhere is the U.S. dilemma more urgent than in Egypt. Predictions that a Tunisia-like uprising will soon topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are premature – the Egyptian regime, with its well-paid military, is likely to be more unified and more ruthless than its Tunisian counterparts were. But whether an Egyptian revolt succeeds or fails, we can be sure that one will be attempted. The first test of opposition strength will come today, when thousands are expected to participate in what organizers are calling “day of revolution.”

This raises a thorny question for the United States: If tens of thousands take to the streets – and stay on the streets – what will it do? The United States is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid. In other words, if the army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the Egyptian military is “not there to project power, but to protect the regime.”

The United States can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the United States offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests. Tunisia, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, was expendable. The revolt was spontaneous and leaderless. Islamists – mostly in prison or in London – were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Tunis or Sidi Bouzid. But if Egypt is lost, it will be lost to an uprising that includes some of the most anti-American opposition groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood – by far the largest opposition force in the country.

The United States is – at least in the short term – stuck.

It didn’t have to be this way. After the attacks of September 11, a bipartisan consensus emerged that the status quo had created an environment conducive to extremism. For a time, the U.S. put pressure on Arab regimes to liberalize. But the problem the United States faces currently is the same it faced during the short-lived “Arab spring” of 2005: For now, it is difficult, if not impossible to have both a democratic Middle East and a pro-American one. Because anti-Americanism is so widespread (in part because the United States supports reviled autocrats), and because Islamist groups represent the largest oppositions, any freely elected government will want to distance itself from U.S. policies. Unable to resolve this “Islamist dilemma,” attempts to promote Arab democracy – including the Bush “freedom agenda” – were either diluted or postponed indefinitely.

But autocracies don’t last forever. This is what decades of democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin American, and Sub-Saharan Africa – and perhaps now Tunisia – have shown us. The United States, then, finds itself in the unenviable position of being a status quo power in a region where so many detest the status quo, wish to fight it, and may – or perhaps inevitably will – one day bring it crashing down.

Fortunately for American policymakers, the Egyptian regime will not fall tomorrow. The United States has a limited amount of time to, first, re-assess its Middle East policy and, then, re-orient it to ride with, rather than against, the tide of Arab popular rule. It can begin distancing itself from Mubarak by stepping up public criticism of regime repression and deepening contacts with the full range of Egyptian opposition – liberals, leftists, and, yes, Islamists alike. It is better to have leverage with opposition groups before they come to power than afterward.

This by itself would likely change the Mubarak regime’s behavior only slightly, if at all, but that’s not necessarily the most significant objective for us. Far more important is to send a clear message to the Egyptian people that we support their democratic aspirations and that we will no longer offer unqualified support to a regime that systematically represses those aspirations.

In the medium-term, the United States, along with its European allies, should consider creative policy initiatives. For example, a “reform endowment” offering substantial financial incentives for Arab regimes to meet benchmarks on political reform, including granting space to opposition and shifting power from the executive branch toward the legislative. This would take a serious, sustained U.S. effort over several years. But the U.S. would have to get started soon, before it’s too late.