Speaking in Cairo in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged America’s support for “governments that reflect the will of the people.” The principles of democracy, he said, “are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Over the past two weeks the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities have been filled with people demanding those rights. The demonstrations seem to represent exactly what American leaders have been calling for: a movement toward representative government in the Middle East. Yet the Egyptian government is not one the United States has wanted to see overthrown. Besides being a secular state, Egypt is an important U.S. ally and one of only two countries in the Middle East to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Instability in Egypt is an alarming prospect for the region as a whole, for Israel’s security, and for the administration’s diplomatic efforts to contain the threat posed by Iran.
There is no question that Hosni Mubarak, who has been Egypt’s president for three decades, has wielded essentially dictatorial powers. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, U.S. aid to Egypt has been coupled with uneasy criticism of Mubarak’s policies. “Emergency law,” in effect throughout his presidency, forbids nongovernmental political activity (including street protests), imposes censorship, and gives the regime’s extensive security apparatus the power to detain individuals without trial. Despite Mubarak’s announcement that he will not seek reelection in September, the February 1 crackdown on the demonstrations is further evidence of the regime’s willingness to suppress human rights to retain power.
Diplomacy is rarely a pretty business. Until Mubarak broke his silence, the Obama administration had taken a cautious approach to the crisis, speaking in support of the Egyptian people without condemning the Egyptian strongman outright. Once the pro-Mubarak forces—allegedly organized and paid by the government—attacked antigovernment demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Obama had little choice but to distance the United States from its longtime ally. As we go to press, Mubarak clings stubbornly to the hope that he can wait till the end of his term to step down.
It is too late for Mubarak’s regime to make token concessions. Obama should urge Mubarak to step aside sooner rather than later, and call for an internationally supervised election to take place. Still, the prospect that a liberal democracy will be established in Egypt anytime soon is remote. A fair election will be difficult to arrange: after thirty years of emergency law, there are few organized opposition parties or channels for democratic change. The protests, though inspiring to millions across the Arab world, have produced no obvious leadership, and the form the protesters’ aspirations would take if Mubarak stepped down is unknown. Israeli hawks and their American supporters have played up the threat of Islamic extremists coming to power in Egypt, but that outcome seems unlikely, at least in the short term. (The Muslim Brotherhood, aware of Western concerns, has taken pains to communicate that this revolution is secular.) One of the few strong institutions in the country is the military, which has been modernized and financed with $1.3 billion in annual aid from the United States. Given the respect Egyptians have for their army (and its willingness to protect the protesters), a military takeover of the government remains a possibility. Meanwhile, Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, is a longtime member of the regime with strong ties to the military and a collaborator with the United States in the “war on terror.” The possibility of his taking power is hardly promising for the cause of democracy. At the same time, the rise of a leader from outside the ruling Egyptian elites may undermine legitimate U.S. interests in the region.
The Egyptian people will have to address these problems for themselves; allowing them space to do so is the price of promoting democracy. The United States must use the leverage it has to support the people’s calls for genuine change and to prevent violent intimidation on the part of the government. A peaceful transition of power is in the interest of all concerned. The brave demonstrators in Tahrir Square know that, as evidently does the Egyptian military. Does Hosni Mubarak?