Commentary Magazine


In Egypt, Up from “Realism”

Western analysts and political scientists will be learning lessons from the Arab Spring for a long time. But among the most important and immediate was the revelation that the cynical core assumptions of realist foreign policy were disastrous for the region and the West. The mirage of stability lured president after president, all the while helping to stifle democracy, education, and women’s rights. The inevitable and violent end of that “stability”–which of course was anything but–has finally reset the Western outlook on dealing with the newly emerging regional power brokers.

Or has it? Freedom House’s David Kramer and Charles Dunne aren’t so sure the West isn’t about to relapse. Egypt’s foreign policy, under its new Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, is adapting to new realities—and so should Washington’s, they write in the American Interest:

First, bedrock principles should guide U.S. policy, and we need to be clear in public and in private what those principles are, stressing the importance of institutions versus personalities.  The United States must stand firmly on the side of basic human rights, especially those of the most vulnerable, including women and religious minorities, and uphold freedom of the press, expression and association. It is particularly important that the United States press the Egyptian government to liberalize the environment for civil society and end its prosecution of international non-government organizations for their efforts to help Egyptians as they work toward democracy; investigations into domestic NGOs should also be ended. There must be rewards for advancing the political transition and real consequences for pushing it back.

The United States must also engage broader segments of Egyptian society and politics. The temptation is to pay too much attention to traditional political elites as well as President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to consolidate power, but that is a mistake. The U.S. needs to reach out consistently to young activists and liberal and secular parties; however feckless they might seem now, their ideas on democracy and governance were the ideological underpinnings of the revolution against Mubarak and have been broadly, if tacitly, accepted by wide swaths of the Egyptian body politic, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They will continue to play a significant role in Egyptian politics.

They have more suggestions as well, so read the whole thing. Lately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been throwing brushback pitches at her old friend Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, in the everlasting turf war between State and Defense. Clinton’s tenure thus far at State has been mostly unremarkable, but managing diplomatic relations with the new Egypt is going to give her the chance to forge a legacy.

Though she won’t be at State much longer, the first diplomatic moves with any new government tend to set the course, since Foggy Bottom’s inclination is to change direction only when absolutely necessary. The Arab Spring and the crumbling of the realist gambit have given Clinton the ability to lead down a different path, one that would finally give Arab liberals a voice and help create the institutions that could lead to real stability—one that relies on, instead of subjugates, the people.