Monday, January 31, 2011

Thoughts on Egypt: Hillary Clinton, U.S. foreign policy, and the transition to freedom and democracy

I think President Obama has done an extremely good job so far handling the situation in Egypt, walking the fine line between supporting Mubarak, a close U.S. ally in the region, and embracing Mohamed ElBaradei and the admirable reform movement that has taken to the streets. Yes, of course, I know that the U.S. has supported an authoritarian regime, that the U.S. has helped prop up Mubarak over the years, that oppression has been central to the perpetuation of that regime, but the situation isn't black-and-white, the forces of liberty struggling against a tyrannical foe, and the U.S. needs to be careful, not least because the outcome of the uprising isn't yet known.

Now, I agree with ElBaradei that the U.S. needs to "let go of Mubarak," and certainly the U.S., and Obama in particular, can't be seen as pro-Mubarak in the event Mubarak's regime falls. Alternatively, the U.S. can't be seen as explicitly pro-reform if reform turns out to be Islamist rule, as in Iran after the 1979 revolution, or, generally, something unstable and in opposition to U.S. interests in the region, or if Mubarak ends up staying in power. That's just how it works. It's called being realistic. You need to keep your options open.

I'm hardly an expert on Egyptian politics, but it doesn't appear to me, from what I can tell, that the country is about to turn into another Iran or, generally, that post-Mubarak Egypt would be fundamentally anti-American. More likely, it would experience the growing pangs of youthful democracy as it transitions away from authoritarianism. Sure, the Muslim Brotherhood would be part of that, in some way, but, contrary to conservative propaganda, it would not necessarily dominate the political landscape and turn the country Islamist. Egypt has a long history of being a secular, modern Muslim state, and there are forces there, ElBaradei among them, who do not want it to move in that direction and who will do everything they can to build a sustainable democratic system.

While Obama is being necessarily cautious, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has articulated a significantly more ambitious pro-reform position, and it's one I think should be the main U.S. response to the current crisis:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday urged Egyptians to take up a national dialogue that would lead to free and fair elections this fall and, while not explicitly distancing the United States from the embattled President Hosni Mubarak, said that the United States stood "ready to help with the kind of transition that will lead to greater political and economic freedom."

She issued a strong endorsement of key groups working to exert their influence on the chaotic Egyptian protests – the military, civil society groups and, perhaps most importantly, the nation's people – but carefully avoided any specific commitment to Mr. Mubarak.

Her phrasing seemed to imply an eventual end to Mr. Mubarak's 30 years in power. But when asked whether the United States was backing away from Mr. Mubarak and whether he could survive the protests, the secretary chose her words carefully. His political future, she said, "is going to be up to the Egyptian people."

Making the rounds of the Sunday television talk shows, Mrs. Clinton urged the government in Cairo to respond in a "clear, unambiguous way" to the people's demands and to do so "immediately" by initiating a national dialogue. At the same time, she was supportive of the Egyptian military, calling it "a respected institution in Egyptian society, and we know they have delicate line to walk." 

This is realism with a pro-democratic core. The U.S. has been closely involved with Mubarak, but it cannot now appear to be overly interventionist. And so Clinton is right that while reform is needed, and desirable, the Egyptian people themselves need to be the engine of meaningful change.

Mubarak may very well be done, and I hope he is, but the future is cloudy. The U.S. will have a role to play, and it can help in the transition to "real democracy," but for now it must advance its interests, and its support for reform, with care.

But it can also help not just by calling for a national dialogue but by signalling, as Clinton did, that it stands for something other than realpolitik, that it stands with the reform movement and the people of Egypt, and that it stands by its own principles and ideals.


You can watch Clinton on ABC's This Week here. Here's part of the interview:

Labels: , , , ,

Bookmark and Share


Post a Comment

<< Home