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MeetingHouse: Egypt and US Policy February 15, 2011 MeetingHouse, Online Only No Comments on MeetingHouse: Egypt and US Policy

Penn Political Review is proud to announce a new feature: the Meeting House. Every few weeks, we’ll ask students and faculty for their opinions on a topic of current concern. This week’s question is, “what course of US policy would be best for Egypt?” If you would like your opinion to be heard, either comment or send your opinion (in 200-400 words) to

The Penn Democrats

The “easy” part of Egypt’s revolution is over.  Now, the uphill battle begins for the military government to stabilize a country both elated from victory and nervous about its uncertain future; building a new government from square one will be no easy task.  Although this revolution has brought about an opportunity to bring Egypt into a chapter more progressive than Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, it is newly vulnerable to the tides of change and challenges facing the new rulers.

The military government seems committed to fulfilling the will of the people and implementing the values that drove the overthrow of Mubarak in the first place.  It dissolved the parliament, set the course to amend the constitution, and projected dates for the next election.  This new direction—one towards broader integration of civil liberties— is a dramatic step towards a sovereign state that reflects more progressive ideals.  If decisions made by the military government continue in this vein, its relationship with the United States could remain allied, as it has been under Mubarak.

But as Egypt begins the steady process of rebuilding itself, the US must balance its own interests with the long-term stability, autonomy, and unity of Egypt and broader Middle East.  The US must be careful that Egypt’s domestic needs are met before any foreign power attempts to secure its own.  After all, the resumption of a stable economy, government and daily life in Egypt is in the best interest of the country itself and any country that deals with them.  Moreover, the military government has already pledged to honor the foreign treaties established under Mubarak, a move that hopefully foreshadows continued good relations with the Unites States.  Still, Egypt has much more on its plate to tackle before it reassesses its relationship with the US and our country’s interests in the region.

Ann E. Mayer is Associate Professor in Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics department. She is a world expert on human rights in the Middle East.

Throughout decades of coddling Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship, the United States deferred confronting reality, proceeding on the unwarranted assumption that no lessons could be learned from the popular outrage that boiled up in revolutions against despotic and corrupt rulers in other countries. The fact that Mubarak was so amenable to saying yes whenever he was asked to take steps designed to further U.S. strategic interests seems to have blinded policy makers. While they asked, oblivious, Egypt turned into a pressure cooker that was bound to explode.

We now see incontrovertible evidence of the scope of opposition to Mubarak’s scelerotic despotism in the massive protests that have wracked the country.  Egyptians of all social classes and all political stripes have mobilized to demonstrate their rejection of a system in which a tiny oligarchy harvests billions while the masses languish in degrading squalor, a savage security and police apparatus terrorizes and tortures innocent citizens, the rot of corruption festers in every organ of government, and an alert and ambitious young generation bereft of opportunities observes the world moving forward – while Egyptians are left behind inhaling dust.

True, if the military would step aside to allow democratic forces to refashion the state, the transition to an open and free society could be rocky and fraught with setbacks. The grim outcomes of popular revolutions in places like Ukraine remind us of how difficult it is to establish the foundations for a healthy democracy in countries blighted by decades of misrule. Nevertheless, if U.S. policy makers elect to stand against history and to collaborate in maintaining a clone of Mubarak’s system, they will be making a bet that is neither intelligent nor safe.  Given the extent of popular alienation, anyone determined to maintain the status quo in Egypt will be obliged to adopt a version of Kim Jong Il’s monstrous regime, which essentially entails sustaining a vastly bloated military and security force while the mass of the population is crushed into a state of abject servitude.  If the United States is ultimately seen as acting as Godfather to an emergent North Korea on the Nile, which would involve winking at measures to eliminate all the bold young protest leaders in Tahrir Square, coping with the reverberations of that development will be trickier than coping with the disorientations and disruptions of an Egypt in the throes of democratization.

Philip M. Nichols is the Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor in the Legal Studies and Business Ethics department. His research focuses on emerging economies, and particularly on issues of corruption.

Whether or not one believes in U.S. “exceptionalism,” one must acknowledge that the people of Egypt are in fact people.  From that basic observation many obligations flow.  The United States has a close relationship with the Egyptian military; it must not use that relationship to support a diversion of the people’s impulses toward freedom but should use it to remind the military of the rights of Egypt’s peoples to participate in the governance of Egypt.  The United States must respect Egypt and its people.  President Obama deals with an opposing party that, as a political tactic, mocks his demonstrations of respect to other countries; the administration therefore has an obligation to help people in the United States understand the importance of respect.  The United States has for many years sent large amounts of money directly to a government that has subjugated its people; aid should now be given directly to institutions and organizations assisting in the transition to an accountable and representative government.  The United States should not tell Egypt what to do, but universities and research centers in the United States hold vast reservoirs of experience and knowledge in transition; that experience and knowledge should be shared.

There are many models for Egypt’s transition to participatory government.  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular Turkey envisioned a strong military; Turkey now enjoys a vibrant democracy.  Mongolia’s parliament reacted within days of huge demonstrations in Sukhbaatar Square; the quick reaction ushered in a vibrant democracy.  Václav Havel, a poet, legitimized Czechoslovakia’s transition government in ways that Mohamed ElBaradei might emulate.  The South Korean army once controlled much of that country’s economy; South Korea now enjoys economic freedom.  Egypt’s experience will be its own, but there is an abundance of knowledge and experience from which it can draw.  Egypt has a well-educated, very sophisticated population; one can only imagine what will happen if these political, business and social entrepreneurial forces are unshackled.

The United States has a profound obligation to do what is right, not what is expedient.  Even so, in the long run a democratic Egypt benefits not just the people of Egypt but all people.  Truly democratic polities rarely go to war with one another, and just as a democratic government would be accountable to the people of Egypt, it could also help to improve the conduct of other governments in the region.

Justin Pergolini blogs for Penn’s International Affairs Association.

The United States, I think, has two main goals in the months to come:

1) Asserting our commitment to political pluralism. Democracy is simultaneously the noblest and pettiest of all human projects: noble because it lifts the citizen out of intellectual poverty, petty because it bows to the stupidity and vitality of the Mob. It was Greek democracy, after all, that killed Socrates. The Romans did them one better; they crowned the murderer of their republic with olive leaves while putting its champion to the ax. We all fear that the Egyptian movement may fall prey to some silver-tongued, power-hungry, or radical interest. But these worries cannot compel us to question the rules of the game. In any democracy worth its salt, people say things we don’t like, they vote for people we don’t admire, and they support policies we don’t agree with. Divergent interests are the core of public discourse; take them away and the function of dissent is muted. Therefore, the US must promise to respect the Egyptians’ right to choose, come whatever may. The fact that they rejected Mubarak’s power-transfer scheme is reason for optimism. Besides, public support for the Muslim Brotherhood is not so clear-cut. They did win twenty percent of the seats in the 2005 election, but that contest was a sham. No one knows exactly how much support they command, and if they plan to build an effective coalition they will have to soften the majority of their more radical views anyway.

2) Resisting any temptation to intervene. If the US hopes to keep its credibility on the world stage, Egypt cannot become another Nicaragua. Under no circumstances can the US be painted as justifying intervention, open or covert, with democratic procedure. We have heard this story before, and it invariably ends badly for us. The success of democracy in Egypt should be reason to celebrate. It gives one hope that a liberal order can still be built in the Middle East, and that perhaps a domino effect can result from Mubarak’s fall. Indeed, the situation in Burma and North Korea, where despots once seemed well-entrenched, appears much more precarious after the Mubarak debacle. A liberal government in Egypt can only help US interests in the long run.

photo credit: sierragoddess on Flickr

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