Don’t Make Egyptian Upheaval About Washington

Ever since Egypt’s public demonstrations calling for regime change began, Washington has been debating what the White House should or should not say, as if American words in the middle of an upheaval that is not our doing can affect the outcome in Egypt and turn the tide of Arab public opinion in favor of the United States.

But if there is any lesson to be learned from Tunisia, and from the U.S. policy in the region in the past few years, it is that these historic and indigenous events in Egypt must not become about the United States. One reason the Tunisian revolution succeeded in toppling the president without major ramifications for the U.S. is that the revolt was not viewed as directly related to the West.

When the Bush administration used the Iraq War as a vehicle to spread democratic change in the Middle East, anger with the United States on foreign policy issues — particularly Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict — and deep suspicion of U.S. intentions put the genuine democracy advocates in the region on the defensive. The outcome has been that, every year since the Iraq War began, polls of Arabs revealed their sense that the Middle East is even less democratic than before.

As we witness the remarkable and inspiring events in both Tunisia and Egypt, one has to wonder whether these events could have taken place even earlier had there not been the diversion of the Iraq War — and whether these upheavals might have swept away Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship without shots being fired from the outside.

Even in Iran, where there is obvious public opposition to the clerical regime, as indicated by the contestation over the 2009 presidential election, one wonders whether the Iranian people might succeed if the regime were robbed of its ability to point fingers at the West.

The United States, for its own sake, must side with people standing for self-determination and freedom, who are prepared to risk their lives for them.

But let’s have no illusion about the effect of what we say on the outcome in Egypt — or throughout the Arab world. Events in Egypt are mostly out of our control. It’s not up to the United States to determine who the next president of Egypt will be. In any case, America’s inability to engineer political outcomes in the region — or even predict them — has been demonstrated in events ranging from the outcome of the Iraq War itself to contests for power in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Whether President Barack Obama publicly calls for President Hosni Mubarak to resign will very likely have little effect on Arab and Egyptian public opinion. 

To be sure, many democracy advocates want to see a more forceful U.S. voice on behalf of regime change in Cairo. But others, including those in places supporting an Egyptian revolution, like the Al Jazeera network, are already asking whether the Egyptian upheaval was instigated by Washington — with some “evidence” presented.

If and when the United States does take a forceful position, we must have no illusion about how it will be spun by many Arabs. Washington is likely to be seen as attempting to control events — moving to pre-empt the public will and engineering an outcome to its liking. It will quite likely be mocked by Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah — just as he mocked France for how quickly it abandoned its client after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia.

There is a sense in U.S. national discourse that the anger with the United States is only about its support for authoritarian governments in the region. It is partly about that. But it’s deeper and more complex — as we have seen in the attitudes of the Iraqi people, many of whom were happy to get Washington’s support to throw off their dictator but were still unhappy with U.S. foreign policy.

Resolving Washington’s dilemma in its relationship with authoritarian rulers in the region will not be addressed by White House speeches or even the elimination of U.S. foreign aid.

As long as the United States has a heavy military footprint in the region, is fighting wars in the Middle East and is invested in the outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it will continue to prefer cooperative regimes over a public will that goes against it.

The Iraq War was most telling. Even as the United States was waging a war partly in the name of democracy, the vast majority of the Arab public passionately opposed it, and even many governments counseled against it — largely for fear of public opposition.

But we insisted and we rewarded and we threatened — and got our way with most. The net result was that those governments that went against the will of the overwhelming majority, which made them even more insecure, reacted in the way they knew best: They became even more repressive.

Today, our closest institutional relationships in the Arab world, driven by strategic U.S. priorities, are military to military, intelligence to intelligence, security service to security service. These agencies are the anchors of repression in the region, regardless of who rules at the top. Given that repression now appears to be failing, this is a moment for a bigger assessment of U.S. policy in the region — beyond what happens in Egypt.

The United States must always stand for freedom and self-determination, and our leaders must articulate that — even when the outcome is uncertain and our interests are at stake.

Still, Egypt is not just another country in the Middle East. It has been the anchor of the U.S. approach to the region since the 1970s, and what happens in Cairo will inevitably have consequences.

Have no illusion: Egypt is already profoundly changed — no matter who will be at the top tomorrow or next year. But we must resist the temptation to insert ourselves in an environment in which we have little control. Washington must, of course, prepare for contingencies and assess ways to protect its interests regardless of the outcome.

But today, to honor those seeking freedom in the Arab world and the principles for which we stand, America must resist the temptation to make the Egyptian uprising about us.