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Time to Rethink U.S.-Egyptian Relations

Widespread Protests in Egypt and Elsewhere Require Coherent Regional Strategy

SOURCE: AP/Ben Curtis

Egyptian antigovernment activists clash with riot police in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, January 28, 2011.

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The battles unfolding in Egypt’s major cities are likely to continue without clear resolution for some time—most struggles for freedom against an old order take a long time to reach a new point of clarity. But even though the fighting is just the latest episode in rapidly escalating protests, it also is a watershed moment that could lead to fundamental change in the country. That’s why the United States must make fundamental changes in its bilateral relationship with Egypt and its broader policies across the Middle East and North Africa as widespread protests continue across the region.

President Barack Obama should set a new rule for his administration’s policy in the region—when he draws a line in the sand and stakes out a position that is ignored by an ally in the region, there should be consequences, and policy changes should be implemented. In a question and answer session on YouTube earlier this week, President Obama urged the government and protesters to avoid violence, and he called on President Hosni Mubarak to move forward with political and economic reforms. No matter what unfolds in the coming days and weeks, President Obama needs to develop a policy that follows up on those words. Otherwise America’s credibility and power to influence events in Egypt and region will continue to wane.

Much has been written about America’s declining power to shape and influence events in the Middle East and around the world. Part of this efficacy crisis is related to successive U.S. administrations making declarations that are subsequently not implemented into policy changes. The result: Stated goals are not achieved and America looks weaker.

Most recently in Egypt, the George W. Bush administration was notorious for elevating the rhetoric on freedom and then doing nothing when the Mubarak government took several steps backward into more repression. As Hisham Kassem, a prominent Egyptian publisher and democracy activist who won an award from the National Endowment for Democracy, told me in a 2007 interview for my book, “George Bush made the first serious U.S. attempt on democratization in Egypt. … now we’ve seen this U-turn take place—and believe me, this U-turn is very damaging—people who put their necks out on the line and risked their lives and reputation…the minute the United States backed off, Mubarak went back to take more power.”

As a result of that lack of follow through, America’s power and credibility in Egypt and the region suffered.

Egypt is now crossing a new threshold, as longtime Egypt watcher Stephen Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations notes in this post. It’s time for the Obama administration to move America’s policy in Egypt and the region across a new threshold.

What does that mean in practice? First, the administration should reject the old way of doing business—investing in institutions and leaders that lack credibility with their own people. Les Gelb, president emeritus at the Council of Foreign Relations, argued, “So long as Cairo remains pro-Western, it serves as an anchor for other such friendly governments.” But today Egypt looks like an anchor on a ship that is rudderless and taking on water, and it would be foolish to ignore the trends.

Second, the Obama administration should undertake a comprehensive review of its bilateral relationship with Egypt and revisit the bargain struck after the 1979 Camp David Accords, which led to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. It should evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t, and then make adjustments in light of the general goals President Obama has stated for political and economic reform. Working with Congress, the administration should cut those programs that have not worked and redirect more support for political and institutional reform in Egypt. Clearly, with people protesting in the streets in part due to poverty and the economic situation, the aid package has not achieved some of the broader objectives.

After stumbling a bit in its initial response to the unrest, the Obama administration has come out strongly in favor of universal rights to free speech and peaceful protest. Now is the time to back up that talk with policy action. America has provided around $60 billion in assistance to Egypt over the past 30 years and it has established deep ties with Egypt’s military and intelligence services. In fact, a senior Egyptian military delegation has been visiting the Pentagon this week as the unrest grew in Egypt. Egypt certainly plays an important role in America’s fight against global terrorist networks and the efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and our countries have many common interests.

There is a way to navigate all of these issues and shape a more proactive and less reactive policy. As I argued in this policy analysis for the Century Foundation, the United States should seek to use all of its leverage to achieve progress on core security interests while encouraging pragmatic reform. Otherwise, staying the course in a path dependency on current U.S. policy could lead to greater instability. Indeed, there is something to Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei’s argument that America’s current policy “is really pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.” America’s influence and leverage is not what it used to be but it can revive its position by changing its policy approach.

Finally, the events in Egypt as well as in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria should spark a broader rethink in America’s approach to the entire region. Currently, the Obama administration is largely stuck in a reactive and tactical crisis management mode on many key fronts. This is a problem many U.S. administrations have in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s National Security Strategy released last year contains a section on the Middle East (pages 24–26) that is a random sampling of security initiatives and vague goals for the region, but it lacks any serious reference to the new dynamics playing out in cities across much of the Arab world, and it certainly does not look like a strategy.

The Obama administration should seize the opportunity presented by events in Egypt to update its policies to meet the current challenges and advance a regional strategy that takes into account the growing economic and social unrest in Egypt and beyond.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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