U.S. should support Egyptian people's quest for domestic reform
With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's exit almost certain, guest columnist Resat Kasaba argues that the U.S. must take care with its role in the transition. By supporting the Egyptian people, the U.S. can continue to have an important relationship with Egypt.
Special to The Times
IT seems all but certain that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, is on his way out. What will follow once he exits, however, is not clear. As of now, there is no obvious Mideast country that has the same relationship to the U.S.
The U.S. is rightly concerned that the entire structure of its foreign policy in the Middle East may have to be rethought.
In conducting Mideast policy, the U.S. has been speaking loudly and using a big stick. This may be a time not only to speak softly but desist from using a stick at all.
Despite past mistakes of U.S. foreign policy and close ties between the Mubarak regime and the West, it is wrong to think that whoever comes after Mubarak will necessarily be anti-Western, that the U.S. will have no influence over the shape of that outcome, or that it will have to reorganize its alliances in the region.
If the U.S. demonstrates, particularly to Egyptian young people, that it wishes to help with democratic and economic reforms, it has a good chance to be heard.
The Mubarak government catastrophically failed to provide for its citizens, and its people, particularly young ones, realize they are falling further and further behind the rest of the world.
The government that follows Mubarak's will have to focus almost exclusively on domestic economic problems, and the U.S. could help. The demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia have been remarkable in their almost-exclusive focus on political change, economic reform and jobs. No single ideology, especially not an Islamist one, has played a prominent role in shaping these protests.
But unlike the Germans who brought down the Berlin Wall, the Egyptians risking their lives for basic human rights cannot be confident that the U.S. will be on their side. The Mubarak regime and others like it in the Middle East and North Africa have been friendly to the U.S., and U.S. policy has paid little or no attention to the overwhelming majority of people who live in that part of the world.
The assumption has been that with massive military support, outwardly powerful regimes like the one in Egypt will always be able to keep their populations under control and protect American interests.
The war in Iraq has made the image of the U.S. in the region immensely worse. The stories of torture, kidnapping and imprisonment without trial have tarnished the image of the U.S. Also, the Islamophobia gripping a significant segment of the U.S. has created an image of the U.S. as fearful, closed and especially unfriendly to Muslims.
Understandably, uncertainty about Egypt post-Mubarak makes the U.S. government very nervous. After Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1977, Egypt quickly became one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, about $1 billion a year. Even though Egypt does not export much oil, it controls the Suez Canal, a crucial passage not only for petroleum exports from the Middle East but also for Europe's trade with Asia.
Mubarak has also been a dependable ally and a crucial interlocutor in the region for the U.S., mediating U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority and the Gulf states.
The Obama administration has done very well in refraining from inflammatory statements and hence preventing the liberation movements from also targeting the U.S. Despite the clear dangers that are involved, the president and the secretary of state have made it clear they support a peaceful transition in Egypt.
The U.S. and other Western powers should not only support in words but also actually help the Egyptian people effect genuine political and economic reform in their country.
If they do, the peace and stability that will follow will be based on deeper and stronger foundations. This will benefit all the parties and, more important, give hope to other people living under equally undemocratic and repressive regimes.
Resat Kasaba holds the Stanley D. Golub Chair and is director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
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