Political uproar in Egypt has Washington stuck between a reflex to back freedom-seeking protests and a vital diplomatic ally — a dilemma with deep implications for Washington’s troubled Middle East policy.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been a fulcrum of US regional strategy for decades, a guarantor of his nation’s peace with US ally Israel and a central player in successive and frustrated American peace initiatives.
But with his 30-year rule seemingly under threat, amid talk of a possible “Arab spring” of revolt against authoritarian rulers, US policymakers must pick their way through a political minefield.
“They are in a difficult position because there is all sorts of momentum in Egypt — and in Washington people think that the dominos just are going to fall,” said Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont.
“I think they are probably pulled in two directions,” Gause, a political science professor said.
More optimistic US cheerleaders, including neo-conservative remnants of the George W. Bush administration, will increasingly demand robust support of protesters, hoping for a wave of democratic change in the Middle East.
And should tens of thousands of Egyptian pro-democracy protesters violently clash with security forces built with $1.3 billion in annual US military aid, the Obama team’s position may become unbearably uncomfortable.
Realists however fret about the loss of a stalwart US-leaning voice in a tough neighborhood where US influence is fraying, and fear a post-Mubarak government, possibly including the Muslim Brotherhood, hostile to Washington.
They argue that if protests subside, Mubarak will not forget who his friends were in his moment of crisis.
So, significant political pressure is building on Obama, who will likely be blamed by pundits on either side for any outcome unfavorable to American interests — despite limited US leverage in the crisis.
Washington’s initial salvo on Egypt — from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday — that the government in Cairo appeared “stable” was seen as an endorsement of Mubarak.
Those remarks were quickly superseded by a nuanced White House statement supporting the “universal rights” of Egyptians and telling the Cairo government it should be “responsive to the aspirations” of its people.
The next day, the White House said Egypt should lift a ban on protests and Clinton called on all parties to exercise restraint.
Leslie Gelb, a former senior US defense and foreign policy official, said in a Daily Beast blog Thursday that even the current nuanced US position was fraught with danger.
“The very assertion of ‘not taking sides’ is itself a tilt away from the all-out support traditionally given by Washington to this Egyptian strongman in recent decades,” he wrote.
But a senior US official told AFP the administration was not chosing one side or the other, though added that Obama had consistently pressed Mubarak to loosen political controls.
The official also said US statements were consistent with Obama’s language on democracy in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world in 2009 — and administration statements since.
US Senator Joseph Lieberman meanwhile encapsulated the US dilemma in comments to AFP on Wednesday.
“This has always been a difficult question for us, because in the first place President Mubarak has been a very important and valued ally of the United States,” he said.
“Secondly, we have regularly urged him to open up the political process more.”
Obama’s position partially recalls the US response to anti-government protests in Iran last year.
At first, he took pains to avoid drawing the United States into the situation, reasoning that an endorsement of protests might give the Iranian government an excuse for a crackdown.
But his approach sparked fierce domestic criticism and he moved to withering denunciations of Tehran when authorities repressed the protests.
As Egypt’s unrest escalates, there will likely be calls for Obama to “get on the right side of history” or risk alienating a future popular reform movement in the Arab world.
However, the crisis plays out, the stakes for Washington are huge.
“If the government changes in Egypt in a direction that is less cooperative with the United States, that has a big impact on American interests in the Middle East,” said Gause.