Saturday, January 29, 2011

Will the US make the right decision in Egypt?

The remarkable events in Tunisia have been followed by even more spectacular developments in Egypt. The idea of an "inert" Middle East that suffers from a "democracy deficit" is belied by the thousands of Egyptians marching in the streets of cities throughout the country chanting slogans that call for freedom and democracy.

Unfortunately, the demonstrations have been marked by violence on the part of the security forces and have caused many casualties. However, with the withdrawal, at least temporarily, of the hated CSF (Central Security Forces), Egypt has experienced not only political protest but looting, including destruction of priceless artifacts at the Egypt National Museum in Cairo.

Thus far, the military has exercised restraint regarding the demonstrations and has not moved forcefully to suppress them. However, it seems that the Mubarak regime withdrew police forces from the streets to send a message that the protests will lead to chaos, thus preparing the populace for the redeployment of the CFS. If this occurs, and the regime orders the military to back up the police, we could see extensive bloodshed in Egypt in the days ahead.

One of the key question that remains is what the response of the Obama administration will be towards the popular uprising in which calls for fair elections, freedom of expression and assembly, and the elimination of the corrupt Mubarak regime continue to ring out.

Once again, radical Islam is the specter that continues to haunt Western policy-makers. Focusing almost exclusively on the possibility of an Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration and the European Union have been tepid in their response to the protests that have engulfed Egypt. They continue to call on the Mubarak regime to exercise restraint in suppressing the demonstrations, allow for the free expression of ideas and enact social reforms (but reforms which have been left largely undefined).

What Western powers fear is a repetition of the events in 1978 and 1979 in Iran where street demonstrations resulted in bringing to power the repressive regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. These considerations pose a problem for the Obama administration. What action should it take regarding the popular uprising against President Husni Mubarak's regime in Egypt?

Unfortunately, the US has shown great equivocation regarding events in Egypt. When the demonstrations began, Secretary of State Clinton at first assured the world that the Mubarak regime was stable. Subsequently, President Obama encouraged the Egyptian government to respect the rights of the demonstrators and to minimize the loss of life. He underlined that the US wants to see the same freedoms we enjoy in this country respected in Egypt as well and he called on President Mubarak to enact long over due reforms. These statements were accompanied by remarks by White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, that US aid to Egypt - $1.3 billion per year, of which all but $250,000 is for military aid - was under review.

While it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Salafi groups in Egypt seek to exploit the uprising, they did not initiate it. Rather it was Egyptian youth, most of whom do not have an Islamist agenda, who began the uprising. While the Islamist movement in Egypt will be the topic of another posting, now is the moment for the US to show its true colors in Egypt and the Middle East and come out full square for democracy.

If the US does not take strong action to force the Mubarak regime to implement immediate and concrete reforms, such as holding truly free elections rather than the sham parliamentary elections in which only 16 opposition candidates were elected to office out of 518 parliamentary seats, the US will lose what little credibility it has among the Egyptian people. It will only play into the hands of the radical Islamists, potentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about their rise to power.

If a major and bloody suppression of the demonstrations does occur, and the US watches from the sidelines, it will represent a failure of potentially catastrophic proportions for the US. Democracy activists will be further marginalized and Islamists strengthened. US inaction will only pour more oil on the politically explosive fires that are rapidly spreading in the Middle East.

Instead, the US should threaten to drastically reduce US aid unless the Mubarak regime enacts immediate and meaningful political and economic reforms. Food supplies are already running short in Egypt. The regime may have the military muscle to suppress the demonstrations, but it does not have the economic wherewithal to sustain 85 million Egyptians should foreign funds and food imports begin to dry up.

Yes, a future Egypt without Mubarak is, for many Western policy-makers, a frightening scenario given the uncertainty that his departure would bring. However, we all know what sticking by the side of the Shah of Iran to the bitter end in 1978 brought in its wake. Does the US and the West want to see a recurrence of Iran in Egypt?

No comments: