Developments in Egypt continue to take an ominous turn a year after the widely hailed revolution which ousted Hosni Mubarak. Not only have Islamist parties won two-thirds of the seats in the new parliament, but the military, which still retains a dominant voice in government, is intent on blaming foreign agitators for the discontent that continues to be felt in the streets. In particular, it has turned on non-governmental organizations which receive U.S. funding, forcing three employees of the International Republican Institute to seek refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo for fear they will be arrested. The fact that one of the refugees is Sam LaHood, son of the U.S. transportation secretary, shows how little the current Egyptian regime seems to fear offending even senior members of the U.S. government.
In response, I imagine there will be some “I told you so’s” from conservatives—including many in Israel—who thought the Obama administration should have stuck with Mubarak through thick and thin. My Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams effectively debunks that argument in this compelling Foreign Policy article.
He points out that the Mubarak regime and other stalwarts of the Middle East’s Old Guard “were not overthrown because Bush criticized them or President Barack Obama failed to shore them up, but because they lacked a coherent defense of their own rule. Thus the neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism.”
I think Abrams is right, but even if he is wrong, we cannot roll back history. We have to deal with the new Middle East on its own terms. Luckily, we still have a lot of leverage we can use to shape events in the right direction—as another Council colleague, Ed Husain, argues in this Wall Street Journal op-ed. In the case of Egypt, we control $1.3 billion in annual aid which is one of the country’s biggest sources of foreign income. Egypt also needs our backing for a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund it is seeking to prop up its stalled economy. Apparently, the Egyptian generals do not think we would dare cut them off. Unless they relent and quickly lift the threat of prosecution from LaHood and the others—and let the NGOs get back to their work of promoting democracy and civil society—Congress and the administration will have no choice but to show we mean business by holding up the money. That threat should also be employed to pressure the new regime from breaking its peace treaty with Israel or violating minority rights and the emerging norms of democracy.
There is still a chance to shape a better future for Egypt, and we should not hesitate to grab it for fear of being seen as pushy or overbearing. That’s better than being seen as a pushover.