If the ongoing Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 are a turning point in the history of the region, are they also for the relationship the region has with the West, particularly for the United States, a crucial regional actor since the 1950s and a hegemonic one since the 1990s?
Over a year after the uprisings began, they have yet to produce a major shift in the US approach to the region; nor have some of the new post-uprising governments fundamentally changed their relationship with the US. The Obama administration, which advocated a cautious, case-by-case approach to the uprisings, has not devised a grand strategy for the region. This has been decried by some analysts, who see a need for a new regional doctrine to emerge, adapting to the new realities created by the Arab Spring and other developments in Arab geopolitics.
Nor has it yet offered distinct new policy towards the country whose uprising has most defined the changing regional order: Egypt. As the country emerges from a tumultuous transition period with many questions unresolved, should the US be developing a more coherent approach to Egypt? Prior to the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration had largely followed the pattern set by the Bush administration post-2006 towards Egypt: it addressed tensions in bilateral relations unleashed by the 2004-2005 attempt to pressure the Mubarak regime to implement economic and political reforms, and de-prioritized issues of democracy promotion and reform while focusing on regional issues such as Gulf geopolitics and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
When the Egyptian uprising began, Washington was not entirely taken by surprise: the foreign policy community had grown increasingly worried about the lack of clarity over who might succeed President Hosni Mubarak and the morose state of Egypt’s internal affairs. Yet —partly because over 30 years of Egyptian stability under Mubarak had not taught them to expect otherwise, but also because addressing Egypt’s problems had largely been postponed to the post-Mubarak era — Washington did little to prepare for the eventuality of the collapse of the Mubarak regime, or even for mass protests.
In many respects, the conditions had been ripe for such a downfall —recent grievances of human rights abuses, the country’s sectarian situation, fraudulent parliamentary elections held in late November, and a poor economic situation for many Egyptians. But US policy towards Egypt had been stuck in a rut for several years, unable to convince or pressure Hosni Mubarak or the wider Egyptian elite of the need for calibrated, gradual change. Washington preferred to conservatively sacrifice its earlier policy objective — ensuring a stable presidential transition in Egypt that would minimize the risk of the country taking a radically different direction — rather than risk the Mubarak regime’s alienation.
In particular, after difficult years of repeated clashes during the Bush administration, the Obama administration — while keeping the rhetoric of democracy promotion — was eager to repair frayed bilateral relations. US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey, in particular, sought to turn a page with her Egyptian counterparts by distancing herself from what Egyptians had seen as intervention in their domestic affairs, notably involving the funding of democracy-promoting NGOs. Criticism of the Mubarak regime became more muted, and — like many Egyptians themselves — a level of resignation and anxious anticipation about the coming presidential succession set in. Washington, it seemed, preferred not to rock the boat ahead of what would be a difficult period to navigate.
The early days of the Egyptian uprising illustrated the limits of Washington’s reach to key decision-makers in the Egyptian elite, despite Cairo hosting the largest US embassy in the world after Baghdad. Within days, conduits to key political, government, diplomatic, economic, and security personalities became useless. Only the military-to-military relationship, long the core of bilateral relations, remained available — with the key intermediary not a current US government official, but a former one who worked for defense firms that procured the Egyptian military weapons and its generals’ plush commissions. The US had no contact with the leadership of the uprising. Formal political actors were largely irrelevant. Having decided to shun a decade beforehand the most influential political movement in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood, it could not influence its decisions. While ultimately the military may have yielded to the Obama administration’s decision to drop its support for the continuing presidency of Hosni Mubarak, it remains unclear whether this was a key factor in the military’s seizing of power on February 10.
Uncertainty, of course, is par for the course in situations of upheaval which include the uprisings themselves or the ongoing transformations they are spurring. The Arab uprisings, having overthrown a key US ally in the region in Hosni Mubarak, offer lessons beyond the desirability and wisdom of supporting dictatorships in the region. Apparently deeply entrenched rulers may be overthrown surprisingly quickly, but the authoritarian systems that supported them, even if they have been shown to be brittle, are also resilient. Egypt’s deeply flawed transition since Mubarak’s overthrow is a testament to this, further complicating who rules and who governs the country (if they are to be the same institution) and setting it on a path of potentially perilous political confrontations for at least several years to come.
US attitudes to these developments will be crucial, partly because they have a role to play in Egypt’s domestic policy, but also because the Arab uprisings offer an opportunity to reconsider previous approaches — or at least to do so within the constraints of the broad strategic interests of the US in the region. The Egyptian example, with the primacy attached on military-to-military relations, is a prime example of the continuity seen in bilateral relations at a moment of change.
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