Events in the streets of Cairo and Egypt’s other cities are unfolding at a dizzying pace as the Egyptian people demand an end to the 30 year reign of Hosni Mubarak. In the past four days, the much-feared security police have lost control of the streets, the Egyptian army has entered the main squares but is embracing rather than shooting the demonstrators, President Mubarak has dismissed his government, and—for the first time in his very long reign—has now appointed a successor (that is not his son). None of this was even imaginable a week ago. And it all has profound significance for American interests in the Middle East.
Since the Nixon-Kissinger era, Egypt has served as the strategic cornerstone of U.S. policy in this volatile region. As the largest, militarily most powerful, and culturally most influential country in the Arab world, Egypt has disproportionate influence on the course of events there. And the Egyptian-U.S. alliance has been fundamentally important both to war and peace in the Middle East.
The peace between Egypt and Israel, forged in the 1970s by Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat, with the active involvement of the United States, has made it impossible for other Arab states to consider going to war with Israel. With Egypt out of the picture, they have all now come to the point where they are willing to end the conflict with Israel. Similarly, the wars the United States is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have been made possible by the flow of forces and materiel through Egypt’s Suez Canal and Cairo West air base. And Egypt’s support for U.S. endeavors in both arenas has been critically important in ensuring broader Arab support.
Put simply, all of our interests in the Middle East—from promoting stability, to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, to ensuring the free-flow of oil at reasonable prices, to containing the influence of Iran and its radical Hamas and Hezbollah proxies—all of them will be much harder, if not impossible, to protect, if we lose Egypt.
But here’s the horrible dilemma that President Obama now finds himself in. If he distances the United States from Mubarak, he risks toppling a critically important Arab ally which could generate a tsunami of instability that could shake the foundations of all of America’s autocratic Arab allies across the region. Yet if he does not distance the U.S. from the Egyptian pharaoh, he risks alienating the Egyptian people, helping to open the way to a theocratic regime that would be fundamentally anti-American.
Fortunately, we know the consequences of being on the wrong side of history, because we have been living with them ever since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1978 and his replacement by the anti-American ayatollahs. The Shah, like Mubarak, represented a strategic pillar, protecting U.S. interests in the critically important Persian Gulf. Jimmy Carter pressed the Shah to undertake political reforms and respect the human rights of his people, but then backed off for the sake of stability. Similarly, George W. Bush pressed Mubarak to open up political space for a moderate Egyptian opposition to emerge and then backed off after Hamas won the Palestinian elections.
At this point, facing by far the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency, Obama cannot afford to backtrack. Yesterday, he came out publicly on the side of the Egyptian people, insisting that Mubarak undertake significant reforms. But it is surely clear by now that the people will settle for nothing less than the removal of Mubarak. So Obama’s options are narrowing. He will soon have to decide whether to tell Mubarak that the United States no longer supports him and that it’s time for him to go.
Fortunately, Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman, the head of Military Intelligence, as his vice president and successor, has made it more possible for Obama to pursue this option with less fear of the potential destabilizing consequences. The United States has a good deal of leverage on the Egyptian military because we have trained, equipped and paid for their armaments. They now hold the key to a positive resolution of this crisis. Mubarak may have appointed Suleiman to shore up military support for his presidency, but he is now dependent on the same military for his survival and they may be willing to abandon him to ensure their own.
That’s the door on which Obama now needs to push. Suleiman needs to be encouraged to take over as Egypt’s new president, order the military to prevent looting but not harm the demonstrators, and announce that he will only serve for six months until free and fair elections allow for a legitimate president to form a new government. If he can put this understanding in place, Obama then needs to call Mubarak and tell him gently but firmly that for the good of his country it’s time for him to go.