The Egyptian Conundrum

Egypt has been a pillar of America's Middle East policy since the late 1970s and President Carter's brokering of the Camp David Accord. The rather frosty peace between Israel and Egypt that Camp David birthed has proven surprisingly resilient – surviving the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the dissolution of the Oslo Accords, the second Intifada. Or, perhaps we should not be so surprised, as the deal is cemented with American largesse, an allocation that last year sent $1.7-billion dollars in aid to Cairo.

President Hosni Mubarak, our man in Cairo, is making several people in Washington uncomfortable about our long-standing ties to his regime. One such man is David Obey, a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, who earlier this month proposed withholding a fraction of the annual aid allotment to Egypt in order to express American displeasure at Mubarak's relentless stifling of pro-democratic dissent. The Obey proposal was killed by the House Appropriations Committee, in part because Secretary of State Rice warned that any cuts would damage a "strategic partnership" that is "a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East."

This saga is outlined in a recent column by Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal who is plainly dismayed by the Bush administration's acquiesence to the thuggish rule of Mubarak – who appears to be grooming his son Gamal to take over the family business. Recent months have seen the imprisonment, torture, and sodomizing of pro-reform activists in Egypt. The accounts have been staggering, for regular coverage visit the terrific blog The Arabist.

The hypocrisy is obvious. After all, it is President Bush who boldly declared in his second inaugural address: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country."

But the solutions are not simple. The situation in Egypt represents a long-standing, central conundrum of American foreign policy: how hard do we prudently push for democracy and liberalization when it often comes at the cost of stability? We need look no further than right over the border in the Palestinian territories where what was by all accounts a free and fair election brought to power the deeply anti-liberal, staunchly terrorist and rejectionist Hamas. Similarly, Mubarak sells his regime to Washington as a bulwark against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These questions do not lend themselves to easy answers. I would suggest that the beginning of wisdom is to say that America must not be willing to consent itself to a stable authoritarian order. Such a politcy is not only obscenely immoral and baldly cynical, it is detrimental to American security. By shoring up authoritarian regimes the United States is guaranteed to make enemies out of local nationalists across the developing world. This is one of the central lessons of the Cold War, during which short-sighted engagement of this kind constituted, in the words of Tufts University scholar Tony Smith, a form of "anti-imperialist imperialism." It is a policy that has been terribly damaging and alienating to thos suffering under authoritarian governments supported by Washington.

The challenges are indeed immense…

– ERG

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