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Egypt's Diplomatic Challenge for the United States

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
January 31, 2011

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The Obama administration, caught off guard by the burgeoning protests that threaten the thirty-year-rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has cautiously started to distance itself from Mubarak and reach out to Egypt's protest movement (WashPost). President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent the weekend in a diplomatic balancing act, reassuring Egyptian and regional leaders that they remain security partners, while urging a peaceful and "orderly transition." Egypt, along with Israel and Turkey, is considered a vital U.S. partner in the region and crucial in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. If Mubarak falls from power, the United States could be deprived of a key ally (CNN).

Clinton on Sunday said the United States is "ready to help with the kind of transition that will lead to greater political and economic freedom," but she stopped short of calling for Mubarak's ouster. CFR's Elliott Abrams, for one, has been critical of the administration's approach to engaging Arab publics hungry for freedom, saying so far it is "too little, too late" (WashPost). CFR's Robert Danin says the administration is in the difficult position of reconciling support for Mubarak and endorsing democratization in Egypt. "The worse it gets out in the region, the worse it gets in Egypt, the more those two principles are going to come into conflict for the administration," Danin says.

Some experts say the White House is aiming for an even-handed approach (LAT), suggesting Mubarak might be able to hold onto power if he implements reforms, while at the same time making plans for a change in regime. Other analysts say Egypt's political turmoil could ultimately undermine broad American foreign-policy goals and put Washington in its weakest position in the region (WSJ) in half a century. Some see comparisons to the U.S. position following the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1978. At that time, the United States was unprepared for the chaos following the shah's overthrow, just as the Obama administration seems unprepared (FT) for what is happening in Egypt today. Some warn that the problems that the United States faced after the ayatollahs took power in Iran could be repeated in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Unlike the Tunisia protests against the repressive government of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that led to his ouster on January 14, the protests in Egypt--while also targeting a leader seen as autocratic and corrupt--criticize the United States for its complicity in abetting Mubarak's leadership. In TIME magazine, Tony Karon writes that a May 2007 cable from the U.S. embassy in Cairo released last year by WikiLeaks warns that, "Whoever Egypt's next president is, he will inevitably be politically weaker than Mubarak."

With Egyptian protests in their seventh day, and with a "march of millions" set for February 1, Mohamed ElBaradei (NYT) seems to have emerged as the official face of the protest movement. There were reports January 31 that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (BBC), which had seemed to support ElBaradei, could be backing off. CFR's Steven Cook points out "ElBaradei is not known to have a broad constituency outside liberal elite opposition circles, and should the demonstrations topple the regime, he is likely to confront competitors in the effort to lead Egypt into a new era."

Background

Clinton's remarks at the Forum for the Future in Doha can be found here.

Read Obama's 2009 Cairo speech on democracy in the Middle East.

Additional Analysis:

The most significant Egyptian political unrest in years spells diplomatic challenges for the Obama administration and could ripple across the Middle East.

As Washington reviews its policy toward Cairo, officials should think hard about fostering a Mubarak-led transition rather than one led by protesters, writes CFR's Leslie Gelb.

A man who places himself at the helm for three decades inevitably becomes the target of all the realm's discontents, writes Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal.

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