Hedging Our Bets on Egypt

The U.S. faces a difficult choice, one that could bolster or tarnish its image and shape its Middle East policy for decades to come. The choice ahead on Egypt is like deciding between the sleazy buttoned down Wall Street banker or the strapping and rugged, yet windswept wanderer. The second pulls at the heart, but the first overpowers the brain. Is stability and comfort worth betraying your morals and heart’s desire for freedom and adventure? Yet at the same time, is an unsettled and erratic future really worth the risk?

The Obama administrations’ careful hedging has so far shown that the White House has yet to make up its mind. A long time key ally of the U.S., President Hosni Mubarak’s regime offers critical strategic advantages. For one, Egypt controls the Suez and, thanks to America’s 1.3 billion dollars of annual military aid, U.S. war ships and transports are guaranteed priority and uninterrupted passage through the canal. Egypt has also gathered both military intelligence and intelligence on terror networks that it has willingly shared with Washington. A third critical issue of which Mubarak has assuredly reminded the White House envoys is that Egypt is one of the few, if not the only, Arab regimes for whom both the Palestinians and Israelis seem comfortable serving as a broker for peace talks. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s recently appointed Vice President and the former head of the central security services, has a long history with America and is both accomplished diplomatically and well-respected by the U.S. and Israel.

On the other hand, the benefits of such a powerful ally come at a high cost, one that has been prodding at the American conscience for nearly three decades. The Middle East has not proven itself a hospitable environment to democratic principles. In order to maintain power, Mubarak has established a strict authoritarian police state. Dissent has been crushed, opposition leaders tortured, and democracy ignored.

For years, benefits were too sweet and the alternatives too grave for America to pass up. Sure the Wall Street banker was a little bit sleazy, but the perks were great: a beautiful midtown apartment, a chauffer, and maybe most importantly, you (America) had married a power broker who could get stuff done (Mubarak).

Turns out, your husband is the next Bernie Madoff and you realize, or at least own up to the fact that, his power wasn’t legitimately earned and that he hurt thousands of people. Your heart lurches and you realize that you haven’t been living the life that you were intended to live, that you told your friends they should live.

America is at that point. The White House can no longer hide and pretend. America’s choice will go a long way toward how others view U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. The decision on how to act is not easy. If the U.S. sides with the protestors, then other leaders, especially authoritarian leaders that America has helped to prop up, may abandon it. By not renouncing Mubarak and throwing full support behind the protestors, America equally risks ending up on the wrong side of history, not to mention endangers future relations with the next government, whichever that may be.

The credibility of America’s foreign policy hangs in the balance. The White House’s timid and veiled response in support of the protestors indicates the White House’s heart still has a pulse, but a stronger signal one way or the other is forthcoming, as the U.S. can no longer remain silent – its hand has been forced.

Does America protect its interests and affirm its commitment to authoritarian rulers throughout the region and worldwide, or does it side with the protestors and stay true to its democratic core. Either way, what America does next will have a lasting impact that will be felt for years to come. Stay tuned.

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