Listening to the people
Events in Egypt provide a fine example of how the US does and doesn't formulate its foreign policy, finds Ezzat Ibrahim
The Egyptian revolution against President Hosni Mubarak's regime is the latest in a series of US foreign policy decision-making mistakes. Once again Washington has been taken by surprise by earth-shaking events in the Middle East. American policy circles were unprepared for the popular revolution that is determined to topple President Mubarak after 30 years in power.
In recent months, the relationship between Washington and Cairo has been strained because of the Egyptian parliamentary elections held last November where the National Democratic Party won an overwhelming majority of seats and left only a few seats for the opposition. Washington urged Cairo to follow a fair democratic process to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and the Congress sought to pass a resolution calling the Egyptian government to respect the will of voters, to no avail.
The United States did not expect that predictable angry demonstrations following the elections might snowball into a major revolution in every part of the country. "The Egyptians are inclined to political stability and fear of the unknown, especially with such volatile situation in the Middle East," a source in Washington told Al-Ahram Weekly.
In late December, a social revolution broke out in Tunisia after a man burned himself because of mistreatment by police. Though a clear signal that should have raised official eyebrows, the US administration did not connect the dots with Egypt, more worried about Jordan and Yemen as candidates riper for political fallout. A US diplomat told the Weekly that the American reaction to the first Egyptian protest, on 25 January, was similar to the shock at the Iranian revolution in 1979.
The US administration ignored the occurrence of many cases of suicide in the Egyptian streets inspired by the incident in Tunisia, listening to the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Abul-Gheit who dismissed talk about a repetition of what happened in Tunisia in Egypt as "nonsense". US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially reiterated US support for the Egyptian regime without much concern for the suffering of the Egyptians.
Cairo got the message that the White House supported the official position in the face of the demonstrators. A senior source in the State Department said that the messages about Egypt on the day following the outbreak of the revolution focussed on the need to give the government an opportunity to address the revolt and stop granting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood a chance to shine.
US officials judged that the "Egyptian state" had enough experience, having tightened its grip on society for more than 20 years, following the confrontation with terrorist groups. Egypt has a security force and intelligence praised by the United States in the past.
But after the "Day of anger on 28 January, the US administration changed its tune, telling the Egyptian regime to meet the demands of the Egyptian people and listen to the masses. Apparently, the administration did not want the Egyptian army to be deployed in the streets because of its previous experience with military intervention against democracy activists in authoritarian regimes.
Egyptian officials in Washington responded by emphasising the "stability factor" as a mantra to justify suppressing the popular upheaval.
It is not clear how deep the division in the US administration is and whether Obama's team has reached a solid vision on how to deal with the immediate transitional period in Egypt.
At one point, the arms lobby and the Israeli lobby met to press the White House to show support to President Mubarak. This youth revolution, remarkably, managed to get the two most influential lobby groups on Capitol Hill to focus all their attention on Egypt. They are now brainstorming with officials to come up with a way for the US government to manage the transfer of power in the country.
The latest statement by the State Department's spokesperson said, "If President Mubarak stepped down today, under the existing constitution, as I understand it, there would have to be an election within 60 days. A question that arises is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election, given the recent past where, quite honestly, elections were less than free and fair. There's a lot of work that has to be done to get to a point where you can have free and fair elections, whether the focus is the parliament or the presidency. There is a clear opportunity here. We want Egypt to take advantage of this opportunity. That is why we're encouraging a broad, serious set of discussions".
After flip-flopping, the American government is again distancing itself from Mubarak's future. A senior assistant to Hillary Clinton told the Weekly, "The US government is not supporting any individual or any specific proposal. We are supporting a transition to democratic government and negotiations over the way forward that includes everyone, government and opposition and civil society."
The developments in Tahrir Square are now dictating the US reaction to what is happening in Egypt. The US is being forced for once to listen to the people in a country where it has important strategic interests. This underlines the everlasting American foreign policy dilemma: who should it listen to? Experience shows it chooses to listen to people under authoritarian regimes only when the regimes lose their grip on power. But it does so at its peril.