Over the last twenty-four hours, we’ve seen Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak promise not to seek another term, quickly followed by a peek at what the next eight months might look like if he continues to cling on to power. Today, armed pro-Mubarak thugs attacked peaceful anti-regime protesters, bringing more chaos and uncertainty to the streets of Cairo and other cities.
Last night, President Obama went the furthest yet in making clear that it was time for Mubarak to exit, saying, “an orderly transition … must begin now.” After violence broke out today, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reinforced this message, saying, “now means now.”
While the Obama administration’s position has evolved significantly over the last week, the question is whether a more assertive statement by the administration last week could have forced Mubarak to realize his time was up and spared Egypt some of the current chaos and violence. It now seems to be only a matter of time until some sort of transitional government takes power that will reflect the people’s wishes, but given Mubarak’s stubbornness, it is important for the United States to be pressuring Mubarak and the military to begin the transition as quickly as possible. This may require a more overt threat regarding possible suspension of U.S. aid if Mubarak continues to refuse to step aside.
Meanwhile, there has been much furor on the right about the possible exploitation of the current situation by Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially those elements of the Brotherhood that have not renounced violence and cling to their anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. rhetoric, would be disastrous for Egypt. Despite some assertions to the contrary by commentators, there is next to no evidence that the Brotherhood was the driving force behind the mass protests in the streets over the last week. In fact, all indications are that the Brotherhood has been playing catch up to the secular opposition forces that successfully capitalized on recent events in Tunisia to draw people out into the streets.
Also exaggerated have been dire predictions regarding possible leader Mohamed ElBaradei. ElBaradei is a complicated figure who caused many problems for the Bush administration when he was secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But ElBaradei is no Islamist and is likely just the sort of figure needed to navigate Egypt toward free and fair elections. Whoever emerges as the future leader of Egypt is not going to be someone who won an election in the United States or Israel. It will be a leader who the United States will have differences with, but also hopefully someone who is tolerant of Egypt’s religious divisions and understanding of Egypt’s long-term strategic needs.
If the people of Egypt, after being given the opportunity to freely choose their leaders, eventually decide to elect fundamentalists who take them down the path of conflict and economic stagnation, like Hamas has done for Gaza, that is their choice. If they want to alienate Israel and return to a state of hostility with their most important neighbor and turn their back on the United States, young Egyptians years from now will soon pine for the days of Mubarak. Just as we are not always pleased with the leaders elected by the voters of Iraq and Afghanistan, we will have to live with the choices made by the people of Egypt.
What we can do is leverage the significant U.S. aid we provide to Egypt and make the military realize that if Mubarak tries to remain in power by beating protesters in the street and reinstituting his police state for the next eight months, the military will lose its cherished support from Washington. For those concerned about what follows Mubarak, the quickest solution is getting beyond him and not allowing extremist forces time to organize. Mubarak’s departure is not an automatic victory at the polls for the Muslim Brotherhood if he exits quickly.
Our policy for the last thirty years was flawed, because by propping up Mubarak, we wrongly assumed that we were eliminating the extremist elements in Egyptian society. The fact is that Mubarak crushed Western-oriented democratic forces and did little to quash the Brotherhood, in many ways building them up because he was supposedly the only thing standing between them and power. U.S. policy thus helped create the uncertainty we now face. It is therefore not surprising that there will be some anger on the Egyptian street toward the United States in the months to come. The key is what we do in the days and weeks ahead to minimize that anger, and stand on the side of those peacefully protesting for real, not just promised, change. To do otherwise and cling to Mubarak denies the reality of the situation unfolding on the ground and is just as wrongheaded as the previous U.S. policy toward Egypt – a policy that is now in shambles.
Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.