How Obama Got Egypt Wrong

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 following is Brookings Doha Center expert Shadi Hamid’s contribution to Pharaoh’s End, in which Foreign Policy magazine asked five top Egypt experts what President Obama should do in response to the nation’s protests.

The Obama administration’s initial response to the ongoing Egyptian revolt was disappointing, but not surprising. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps unwittingly, conveyed the essential thrust of U.S. policy Tuesday when she called the Egyptian regime “stable.” For decades, the United States has prioritized a now clearly illusory stability over American ideals. It appears the administration, slowly, is realizing its mistake — and that of its predecessors. President Obama’s remarks earlier today — in which he spoke of the universal rights of the Egyptian people – suggested a possible shift in tone. This, however, may prove a perfect example of “too little, too late.”

Those who propose the United States somehow adopt an approach of “noninterference” should remember that silence will be interpreted as complicity by Egyptians. America, after all, far from a bystander, is the Egyptian regime’s primary benefactor. The billions it has given Egypt in economic and military aid means that the United States, more than any other country, enjoys significant leverage with Egypt. Now is the time to use it.

For starters, stronger rhetoric is necessary. This is not the time for expressions of “concern.” The gravity of the situation, and the sacrifices of the protesters, requires a more appropriate language. It is worth looking back at the “color revolutions” of Eastern Europe for inspiration. During Ukraine’s second round of (fraudulent) elections in 2004, then Secretary of State Colin Powell said the following: “If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly, there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine’s hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration, and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud.”

What should the goal of U.S. pressure be? First, to prevent the Egyptian regime from using excessive force, to permit protesters the right to peacefully assemble, and to ensure that what happened Friday — an unprecedented blockage of Internet and mobile services– does not happen again. It should then be made clear that the U.S.-Egypt relationship will suffer if those expectations are not met. This, for example, may include cutting military aid.

America was rightly credited for playing a significant role in facilitating democratic transitions in Ukraine as well as Georgia and Serbia (though the follow-through may have been lacking). If the United States is seen as helping make another transition possible, this time in Egypt, it will give Americans much-needed credibility in the region. Successful transitions in Egypt and Tunisia could herald a reimagined relationship between the United States and the Arab world, as Obama promised in his 2009 Cairo address, titled “A New Beginning.”

Lastly, no one should underestimate the crucial role of international actors. Rarely do successful democratic transitions occur without constructive engagement from Western governments and organizations.

Of course, a major question remains: does the United States, in fact, want real democracy in Egypt? Or would it prefer that the current regime — perhaps after agreeing to reforms — somehow stay in power? Answering that may be one of the most important things President Obama does this year.