Is Caution the Right U.S. Strategy?

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 Obama administration’s language on Egypt has been, at times, impenetrable. In recent days, though, the message has landed firmly on the side of not going too fast, too quickly.

For the United States, the important thing is an “orderly transition.” For the protesters, the important thing is who leads it. There is, then, a clear – and somewhat significant – gap between what the Obama administration wants and what the protesters say they want.

The protesters have had one single, overarching demand – that President Mubarak step down. But, after the counter-revolution began in earnest on February 2, that is now looking increasingly unlikely. It seems the United States is just fine with that given the most recent statements from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

There was fear that Mubarak staying would be a recipe for instability. But now the concern is that Mubarak leaving is a recipe for instability. This is one of those times when U.S. interests and ideals sit in uneasy tension.

Among the Egyptian opposition, the disappointment with the Obama administration’s response to the protests has been palpable from the very beginning. Notwithstanding an “orderly transition,” there is a general sense that the United States does not want to see the Mubarak regime fall. Even if Mubarak did fall, Omar Suleiman, a regime stalwart, would still be vice president. After appearing confused and aimless just one week ago, the ancien regime is showing that it can and will survive. This is not what the Egyptian people were fighting for in Tahrir Square.

Perceptions matter. And there is a risk that the United States – after toughening its tone – will be seen as falling back on what it knows best: an illusory Arab stability.