Democracy in Egypt: What Are the Risks to the United States?

As the Obama administration tries to balance the demands of street protesters to hasten Mubarak’s departure, the pleas of the dictator to stay on for the weeks to come, and the calls by nearby allies—also dictators—to stay true to Mubarak, it is worth a quick review of the stakes in Egypt for U.S. interests.  For while deposing Mubarak is clearly what is best for the Egyptian people, for the United States it is far more problematic.

Mubarak, after all, was a friend—a brutal, corrupt and despotic friend, but a friend nonetheless. His regime was as pro-American as is conceivable for Egypt. Any replacement government that reflected the will of the Egyptian people would keep far more distance from Washington, even if it were stable and not dominated by Islamists.

Military cooperation would be one of the first areas to suffer. Egypt has long offered the United States access to the region in a crisis, overflight rights, and other support, including Egyptian troops participating in international coalitions. U.S.-led military operations, however, are viewed with suspicion at best, and a democratic Egyptian regime would shy away from any open support.

Counterterrorism would also suffer, though here there is good as well as bad news, as I discussed in my posting earlier this week on Al Qaeda and Egypt. Put simply, a new government would, and should, purge its security services, but these are the same services that also help the United States combat Al Qaeda. A new government also would be reluctant to be a home for U.S. renditions and otherwise assist the nastier side of U.S. counterterrorism. However, Al Qaeda too would suffer. It loathes Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which despite being Islamist (or, in reality, because it is Islamist) is seen as a sellout and turncoat. Bin Laden should worry that the peaceful nature of the protests and their success so far are telling proof that violence is not always the handmaiden of change.

Israel is the stickiest issue. Even a Muslim Brotherhood government would be unlikely to abrogate the peace treaty, but that good news should not disguise the risks to the Jewish state. Egypt will no longer be a voice pushing Palestinians to make compromises in the name of peace or helping legitimate any concessions they do make. Egypt also would be unlikely to continue the blockade of Gaza, making it easier for Hamas to smuggle goods into the Strip and acquire weapons—permissiveness that would anger Israel and ratchet up tension.

As the Obama administration struggles to get ahead of events, it should not forget that the good news for Egyptians in getting rid of their despot also can be good news for the United States despite these problems. The longstanding U.S. objective of supporting democracy—often honored in the breach, but still something that most Americans rightly favor—would take a giant step forward. A democratic regime in Egypt would diminish, though hardly end, the stigma attached to the United States for its support of dictatorship in the Arab world—one reason, though only one, that the United States is widely reviled there.

Managing the transition will be vital. Revolutions can and do go off the hinges (see the excellent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal today by my Brookings colleague Kenneth Pollack). Yet helping keep Mubarak in power, or even relying too much on the Egyptian military, risks maintaining a dictatorship in Egypt and in the process infuriating the next generation of Egyptians and increasing support for radicals. So, despite the complications a democratic Egypt brings to U.S. policy in the region, it is the best realistic outcome for U.S. policy.