Why You Should Care About 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.

If Americans don’t care yet, they should. Egypt, after all, is not just any country. It is America’s closest Arab ally and the first to have made peace with Israel. The United States has depended on the Mubarak regime to advance a number of key security interests, from countering Iran to combating terrorism.

It’s clear now that the regime’s days are numbered. Over the past week, the streets of Egypt have been flooded with people demanding a new government and, in essence, a new way of life. What will a political vacuum in Egypt mean for security and stability in the broader Arab world? Western officials have expressed fears of another Iran, with a Western ally being lost to Islamic fundamentalism. Perhaps a democratically elected government, reflecting widespread anti-Israel feeling, will reassess the Camp David peace treaty of 1979. And what about the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries? If they, too, find themselves embroiled in a struggle with restive populations, then the free flow of oil — long a top U.S. foreign policy priority — could be undermined, with drastic consequences for the global economy.

A Critical Moment

The growing uncertainty has led to a regional stock market crash, rising oil prices and other economic damage. Though President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement Tuesday night that he won’t seek re-election momentarily calmed things, clashes between his supporters and the crowds in the streets ushered in new unease.

This is a critical moment not just for Egypt but also for America. Not only are our interests at stake, but so are our ideals. We might be seeing a pan-Arab democratic revolution. But because of its longtime support of Mubarak, the United States faces the hard task of midwifing a transition while staying arm’s-length from the waning regime. The Arab world had always been the “democratic exception,” an authoritarian region in a world of growing freedom and democracy. Now events in Egypt could mark a definitive turning point.

The crisis has entered its final phase. Though Mubarak has blinked, his insistence on hanging on until the September elections has been rejected by the thousands in the streets. The military, which receives $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance, is poised to play kingmaker in this next phase but, so far, has stayed largely neutral.

Considering the economic cost, as well as the cost in U.S. credibility, this paralysis cannot continue indefinitely. Regime forces are looking for ways to hold the revolution back, to run out the clock until the elections. The Obama administration, then, has the leverage to push Mubarak more quickly out the door. Up until now, though, the United States has been behind the curve. On Jan. 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed that the Egyptian regime was “stable.” A week later, the country is crumbling. This, presumably, is what happens after three decades of pent-up anger over the indignities of autocratic rule. The Obama administration has since toughened its tone, calling for an “orderly transition,” but hasn’t gone as far as supporting the protesters’ one key demand: that Mubarak quit now. More than a week into the crisis, the United States is still hedging its bets.

What’s Next

Egypt, as the most populous and influential Arab nation, has the potential — with the help of the international community — to become a model for the region. It also has the potential to become a model for something altogether more frightening: a failed state unable to control its own people or territory. If Egypt moves toward democracy, the Obama administration will be remembered for resisting until the final moments. If Egypt reverts to chaos or refashioned autocracy, it will mark the definitive end of the “new beginning” that Obama promised during his historic Cairo address in 2009. Fortunately for U.S. policymakers, there is still time to pressure Mubarak to step down immediately. The protesters, whose signs are purposely in English, are pleading for such support.

Should Americans care? Only if they care about 80 million people who yearn for freedom. Only if they care about U.S. national security interests. Only if they care about a stable Middle East. Only if bloodshed, even in a faraway land, troubles the conscience.

The world is watching. Now we will find out just how much the world cares. Egypt’s stability — and the freedom of the Egyptian people — hangs in the balance.