Obama’s Worrisome Stance on Egypt

As the Obama administration backs a transitional government in Egypt led by vice-president and Mubarak loyalist Omar Suleiman, Issandr El Amrani writes that “we are quickly heading towards the formation of another strongman regime that cannot be trusted to deliver on the changes needed in the political environment.” This verdict appears to be widespread among knowledgeable Egypt analysts. With Suleiman and the military firmly in the driver’s seat, the US seems to be pushing for changes that may end up being largely cosmetic – what Jim Lobe has described as “Mubarakism without Mubarak.”

It is too early to say unequivocally that this is the course the Obama administration has decided to take. The nature of the current US-Egypt relationship is such that backroom negotiations are far more important than public pronouncements, and thus there’s no way of knowing exactly what the administration is telling its Egyptian counterparts. It’s not impossible that the US really does see Suleiman as nothing more than a brief stopgap to smooth the transition to a more robust democracy, as administration officials have been claiming. If that proves to be true, I will withdraw my reservations about the administration’s approach.

But if the US does end up trying to prop up some form of Mubarakism without Mubarak, it will represent a serious error – and one that even those who are generally sympathetic to the Obama administration should not hesitate to criticize it for. Regular readers will know that I was extremely skeptical of right-wing criticisms of the Obama administration for not “doing more” during the 2009 Iranian political crisis. The reason was that “doing more” generally turned out to mean one of two things: either engaging in more self-righteous public posturing, or taking a harder line on the Iranian nuclear program by escalating sanctions and considering a military strike. Neither course of action stood any likelihood of doing anything to help the Green Movement’s cause – in fact, as Iranian dissidents like Akbar Ganji warned, the course of action favored by the Iran hawks was likely to destroy the Iranian opposition altogether.

Why do I think criticisms of the Obama administration are justified in the Egyptian case when they weren’t in the Iranian case? Simply because in Egypt the US does actually have the potential to “do more,” and to have a tangible impact on the fate of the democracy movement. While the US had no relationship with the Islamic Republic that would allow it to exert leverage on the regime’s behavior, the Mubarak regime is a US client, and the US thus has an great deal of leverage – particularly on the Egyptian military, which will play a decisive role in any political transition. Putting the possible discontinuation of US military aid on the negotiating table, for instance, might exert a real influence on the decision-making of Suleiman and his circle.

It has been repeated to the point of platitude in recent weeks that Egyptians must determine their own fate, and that the US cannot dictate Egypt’s future to it. This is certainly true, but it is frequently misused and misunderstood. It is fallacious to believe that if the US sits back and allows the perpetuation of the status quo it will thereby be “doing nothing,” for the simple reason that the status quo – US backing for a military regime in Egypt – itself represents a serious intervention into Egyptian politics. For the Obama administration to continue its current backing for the regime under Suleiman while refusing to push for political reform would not be “letting Egyptians decide their own fate.” It would be siding with the regime against the protesters.

This is not chiefly a matter of rhetorical posturing. I don’t particularly mind that the administration has taken a restrained tone in its public pronouncements, and I don’t think that issuing gauzy paeans to Freedom and Democracy would do much to help the cause of freedom and democracy in Egypt. (Not to mention that after thirty years of US support for Mubarak, such rhetoric would surely strike most Egyptians as obviously insincere.) Rather, it is chiefly a matter of the serious use of US leverage – most likely in private – to make clear to the regime that continued US political patronage will depend on major political reform. It’s possible that the administration is already doing this, in which case these worries will be unfounded. If not, however, Obama will have a lot to answer for.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. What are the salient facts in this piece? First, that “there’s no way of knowing exactly what the administration is telling its Egyptian counterparts.” Okay. Yet Obama’s stance on Egypt is “worrisome” to Mr. Luban, even though he (Luban) can’t know what that stance is. Second, that “it’s certainly true” that Egyptians must determine their own fate and that the U.S. cannot dictate Egypt’s future. If this is so, then the intervention Luban seeks would be ineffective or even, perhaps, harmful.

    Mubarak has stated publicly that he will leave in September. If he resigns before then, Egypt must hold a presidential election in 60 days. What are the chances that a free and fair election can be organized in 60 days, in a country that has never before had one? Not good, I’d say. If the U.S. seeks to force the pace in Egypt, it risks contributing to chaos or a military takeover, rather than a transition to democracy.

    The idea that the street can dicate terms in Egypt has already been shown to be only partially true. The Egyptian establishment is still standing, and has apparently conceded all that it will concede. Armchair statesmen can pronounce on this situation at their ease, having no real life responsibilty in the matter. The man who actually has the responsibility is wise to tread carefully. In addition, of course, a more heavy-handed U.S. policy, even if on the side of the angels, would be frankly imperialistic in nature — and thus, one would think, a no-no for leftist critics of U.S. interventionism.

  2. editors note: “we are quickly heading towards the formation of another strongman regime that cannot be trusted to deliver on the changes needed in the political environment.”

    Wrong, the strongman is the only gov’t that can be trusted to deliver…” There you go confusing the people with the state, again.

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