America’s Dilemma in Egypt

“I want to send a message to President Obama,” said Mohamed el-Mesry, a middle-aged Egyptian professional in an interview with the New York Times. “I call on President Obama, at least in his statements, to be in solidarity with the Egyptian people and freedom, truly like he says.”

Following Tunisia’s success in ousting their President, it appears Arabs across the Middle East are taking courage. For many, it’s exhilarating to watch the uprising in Egypt against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. However, America now faces a critical dilemma in Egypt: support the people against the current government or back the current government?

Although American ideology promotes democracy and self-determination, historically the U.S. has backed strong leaders in the Middle East. This strategy establishes certainty with key allies in the Middle East, namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Because Mubarak didn’t answer to his people, he could make unpopular moves to promote U.S. interests in the region. For example, Egypt has long been the U.S. mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. Because of their Arab heritage, Egypt could succor the Palestinians into difficult peace agreements – even when these agreements were not viewed as favorable by the Palestinians and were not popularly supported by the Egyptian people.

In the end, it is far easier for Washington to communicate foreign policy objectives to one strong leader, than to a weak one, or worse, one that won’t even answer the phone.

What will America do in the face of a changing Middle East political landscape? In the coming weeks and months, it will be critical for the U.S. to navigate the uncertain political waters with skill to avoid some of the following dangers:

- Anti-U.S. sentiment

- Failing to support the people in the promotion of self-determintion and democracy

- The possible election of a leader who doesn't favor the U.S.

- Radical islam filling a power void.

I feel the anti-U.S. sentiment possibly taking hold is the most pressing issue facing U.S.–Egyptian relations. The Egyptian people have long known that the U.S. backs Mubarak, even though he is seen as an authoritarian leader in Egypt. However, the recent conflicts between the people and police have underscored this relationship, as tear gas canisters read “made in the USA.”

Egyptians consistently hear the U.S. rhetoric of democracy, freedom, and self-determination. Now, they may have a chance to procure it for themselves. If they succeed, they will not look favorably upon a U.S. that didn’t support them, at least in rhetoric.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Joseph Martin

Joseph is a Policy Fellow at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an organization focused on building a free and democratic Syria. He is a second year MA Middle East Studies candidate at George Washington University. Previously, he served in the Marine Corps Reserves for eight years and has lived in Egypt, Oman, South Africa, and Botswana. When he is not planning his next big adventure, he loves to mountain bike, backpack, and climb.

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