Egypt and the Loss of U.S. Prestige in the Middle East

Deal W. Hudson
Published January 31, 2011

The upheaval in Egypt appears to be a political revolution in its purest form: a united, non-violent effort against a military dictator from across the spectrum of Egyptian people, including leftists, Christians, Muslims, Arab nationalists, Nasserites, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

More than 100 Egyptians have been killed, with thousands more injured, and there has been much destruction; but as an Arab friend of mine at Bethlehem University put it, “In a nation of 85 million people, this is still a relatively peaceful transformation.”

The official statements from the White House began with expressions of concern for police violence but changed tune after sensing the wind was blowing away from the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Evidently, Vice President Joe Biden was out of touch with the White House and the State Department as they began acknowledging the need for reform in Egypt. Biden’s comments on PBS ensure the United States will be viewed warily by whatever leadership finally prevails:

Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with Israel… I would not refer to him as a dictator.

At least Biden was addressing the key issue arising from the mass demonstrations – whether or not there is any actual democracy in Egypt. As Jennifer Rubin points out in the Washington Post, President Barack Obama has yet to connect the uprising with a desire for democracy by the thousands who have risked their lives and livelihoods in taking to the streets. Secretary Hillary Clinton only did so yesterday. This at a time when Egypt is experiencing the same passion for freedom that brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the Soviet Bloc twenty years ago.

Mubarak assumed the presidency of Egypt in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. (Mubarak himself has survived six attempts on his life.) He was “reelected” in three referendums, but there were no opponents due to an unusual restriction in the Egyptian constitution.

Under international pressure, the constitution was changed, and Mubarak won the subsequent referendum in 2005 with the help of widespread election fraud; the runner-up, Ayman Nour (who contested the election), was convicted of forgery and spent five years at hard labor. At the time, the Bush White House issued a statement saying Nour’s imprisonment “calls into question Egypt’s commitment todemocracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

The bipartisan Working Group for Egypt is thinking well ahead of the Obama administration. The Working Group – which includes Michele Dunne of Carnegie, Robert Kagan of Brookings, Elliott Abrams of the Council of Foreign Relations, and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress – recommends an immediate cessation of foreign aid to Egypt until the government agrees to free and fair elections. They ask the Obama administration to call for:

  • free and fair elections for president and for parliament to be held as soon as possible;
  • an amendment to the Egyptian Constitution to allow opposition candidates to register to run for the presidency; and
  • the immediate lifting of the state of emergency, releasing political prisoners, and allowing for freedom of media and assembly.

In other words, it’s time for leadership from the head of a nation whose name is supposedly synonymous with freedom, democracy, and human dignity. If Obama fails to speak up for the Egyptians who are demanding these rights – the values taught year in and year out to our nation’s school children – then the United States will only suffer a greater loss of prestige in the Middle East.

President Obama has already dropped the ball in his attempt to reach a two-state solution in the Holy Land. I was hopeful Obama would mark the New Year by renewing his effort in Israel and Palestine, because it was clear that the United Nations and others were going to take the initiative in seeking Palestinian independence. Just two weeks ago, Russia gave official recognition to the Palestinian state, and other countries will surely follow.

Now, the new situation in Egypt will undoubtedly affect the prospect of a two-state solution, making it even more difficult in a destabilized environment. Biden was right in noting that Mubarak had been an ally in keeping peace in the region. But the Israeli leadership’s attempts to maintain the status quo may soon run out, and their delay in achieving Palestinian independence will appear to all as precious time wasted.

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