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The Unknown Unknowns of Egypt

If you’re an Egyptian policy maker, are you worried about future US assistance to the country?

The Washington Institute for Middle East Policy’s J. Scott Carpenter says yes:

The Mubarak regime’s resolute failure to live up to its human rights obligations will give ammunition to members of the next Congress eager to send a strong message to Cairo. As a result, future U.S. administrations will find it difficult, if not impossible, to justify economic assistance to Egypt, let alone to increase it. The White House, instead, will have to fight off multiple efforts to condition Egypt’s military assistance. Waivers similar to those Rice announced this spring will increase, embarrassing both Egypt and a White House forced, however reluctantly, to stand with its “strategic partner.”

I see Carpenter’s point, but am not yet convinced (I’m also not convinced that punishing Egypt is a good idea. Israel’s policy makers tend to be softer than the Americans on this issue). True — Egyptians were making it harder for the US to ignore their consistent abuse of human rights and constant failure to assist such goals as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And it’s also true that the Congress was making noises of displeasure for quite a while now, and is angry at Egypt’s excuses and (sometimes) lies. However, threatening is different than acting, and the Egyptians can pull some tricks — in Iraq, in Gaza and in other places — that will make it harder for the US to choose confrontation with this sleepy Arab lion.

But maybe Carpenter does have a point. Reading through Many Middle-East-related quotes of the newly appointed VP nominee, Joe Biden, I’ve noticed his tendency to compliment President Bush whenever the administration shows some sturdiness with Egypt.

Biden remembers that picking a fight with Egypt is not something that should be done lightly:

After all, we need China to help roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. We need Russia’s help to assure the destruction of those loose nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of the wrong people, and to prevent Iran from going fully nuclear. We need Pakistan’s help to root out al Qaeda and the remainder of the Taliban. We need Egypt’s help on the Mideast peace process and in Iraq.

But this doesn’t prevent him from preaching for some tough love:

In Egypt, Secretary Rice cancelled a planned visit to Cairo because of the detention of political leader Ayman Nour. And President Bush restated during his European trip: “the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”

This sent an unmistakable signal to President Mubarak and at the very time Egypt is doing some heavy lifting for us in the Middle East peace process and in offering to train Iraqi security forces. Yes, Egypt may have been just as concerned about Congress cutting aid and about increasingly bold anti-Mubarak protests. But the administration did the right thing, and I believe it made a difference.

Why is all this so important?

Because – paraphrasing the Rumsfeldian witticism – there are the problems we know we’ll have to deal with (Iraq), and those we know that we don’t know how to deal with (Iran). But with President Mubarak getting older, and the ensuing power-struggle, Egypt might be the next administration’s problem it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know how to deal with.



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