Why the U.S. Should Support the Protestors in Egypt

by: Abdulrahman El-Sayed
Doctoral student, Oxford University

The dominoes are falling. First a full-out revolution in Tunisia, and now the streets of Egypt are racked by protests that have engulfed its major urban centers, including Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. What started in Cairo as the concentrated human reaction to decades of lawlessness, corruption, economic decline, and abuse among young middle and working class men and women, inspired by the courage of a small North African nation just west, has erupted into an almost-revolution that threatens to topple the region's most iron-fisted strongman, and reverberate throughout the Middle East.

While I have made my opinions clear regarding the stance America's ideals should have her take in Egypt elsewhere, I'd like to turn my attention here to the perplexing fixation among pundits and politicians about a "delicate balance" the Obama administration should apparently heed when considering its allegiances in this situation. Why are they so worried? Supporting the protestors too early might weaken the American bargaining position with Mubarak if, in fact, this revolution fails; the Mubarak regime is a key ally in maintaining the peace with Israel; supporting democracy in Egypt might allow the country to fall to the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood a la the Islamic republic in Iran and Hamas in the Gaza strip; and empowering protesters in Egypt might contribute to further instability of the region.

None of these issues substantiates American backing of the Mubarak regime, and ultimately, American interests lay with the protestors fighting for their freedoms in Cairo's "Liberation" square.

First, let's discuss America's position with Mubarak. Inheriting the Egyptian presidency from Anwar Sadat following his assassination in 1981, Mubarak also inherited one of the richest international aid packages of its time -- what is currently $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt, 65% of which finances the Egyptian military. Mubarak, famously a military man, is dependent on the strength of this American-funded military for power. Therefore, given that his power derives from the strength of his military, which is funded by American tax dollars (support which could easily be discontinued), the US's position with Mubarak will inevitably remain strong if he does, in fact, survive this attempt at his power, regardless of the US position on the uprisings. Moreover, with a weakened state security apparatus following this uprising, if he does survive, he will undoubtedly be more reliant on the army for power than he was before, increasing US leverage. Finally, because the army will likely broker any transition of power if Mubarak is to fall, the US would likely maintain a degree of leverage with a future government, as well. Therefore, supporting Egyptians demonstrating for freedom and justice is not likely to weaken US leverage in Egypt in any way.

And what of Israel? Stated US foreign policy contends that support for Israel derives from its status as the lone democracy in the region. Presumably, by its very presence in the Middle East, Israel should diffuse democratic ideals to its autocratic neighbors, ultimately spreading democracy throughout the region. Hence, the reasoning goes, Israel is an important ally and should be supported. Taking this lone justification naively, present circumstance should lead us to question this premise -- on Friday Israeli prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "I'm not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process" in support of Mubarak and his regime. It appears then, that America's propped democratic ally in the region stands against democracy among its neighbors when they actually attempt to democratize. What's worse, US support for Israel (supported, ostensibly, for the very purposes of promoting democracy in the region) has become an excuse to stand against another regional country's efforts to democratize. Perversely, support for Israel has become an obstacle to support for democracy in the Middle East, rather than a source of democracy in the region.

Another fear on the part of pundits and politicians alike is that supporting democracy in Egypt might throw it to the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition group to the ruling National Democratic Party. First, as Middle East historian Juan Cole says, "Muslim movements have served to protest the withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities, and to provide services. But they are a symptom..." Second, even if the Muslim Brotherhood were to take power, there are several reasons why the ensuing state would look nothing like Iran. First, the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization -- Sunni Islam is, by its nature, less hierarchical than the Shiite brand of the religion. Hence, the concept of a "supreme leader" or theocratic figurehead is improbable under the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, as it stands, the Muslim Brotherhood lacks a popular leader akin to the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Thus, the movement will not be able to consolidate power as readily in these turbulent times as their counterparts did in Iran, and will therefore have limited input in shaping legislative procedure (it is this vital input on procedure which ultimately created the Iranian "Islamic Republic" as we know it today, rather than a liberal democracy run by an Islamic party, a la Turkey). Third, the military is, and will remain for the time being Egypt's principal powerbroker--it is safe to say that the military wouldn't back a Muslim Brotherhood government without strong liberal democratic structures in place. Fourth, the Muslim Brotherhood has recently agreed to support a tra..., who is not affiliated with the movement in any way, signaling the party's willingness to compromise. Others argue that Muslim Brotherhood control in Egypt would echo Hamas's leadership in Gaza. This is foolish--attempting to draw inference about one Islamic party's behavior in Egypt, the Middle East's largest country with considerable economic potential, from another party's behavior in Gaza, a territory harrowed by over 60 years of occupation, ignores the influence of the vastly differing contexts within which each group operates, and is therefore, unproductive.

Lastly, supporting the right for self-determination in Egypt might promote uprisings in other volatile countries in the region, some argue. I concede; this is true. But whether or not Mubarak's regime survives these uprisings, Tunisia's revolution and Egypt's audacity to challenge Mubarak have changed the Middle Eastern landscape forever. And while Mubarak and others like him may be able to temporarily halt internet and mobile phone signals, or fire live ammunitions at civilians, the use of social media and the penetration of mobile phones into Arab society will continue to grow, and pent-up Arab longing for freedom will escape. Democracy in the Arab world is a foregone conclusion; it's just a matter of when. And as Henry A. Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, said, "whatever must happen ultimately should happen immediately."

Ultimately, it is in America's interests to support Egyptian protestors' efforts to achieve "the ability to speak [their] mind and have a say in how [they] are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as [they] choose" (as President Obama said in Cairo only months ago). Ideals are ideals--they're like the truth--you can't defend them some of the time, and then forsake them when it's inconvenient. If the US truly wants to be the beacon of justice and liberty that it claims it does, it would behoove the Obama administration to fall decisively behind the protestors in Egypt. America has little to lose by supporting this movement; and what to gain? The trust and allegiance of a generation of young Arabs who will, ultimately, be free.

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