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Egypt's Revolt and the American Model

Author: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 26, 2012
Wall Street Journal


Upon landing at Cairo's international airport, I see a billboard that quotes none other than Barack Obama saying: "American young people need to grow up more like Egyptian youngsters." Thus one year after their revolution do Egyptians bolster their newfound post-Mubarak pride through association with an American president. At bookshops across Egypt I find bestselling guidebooks on how to pass entrance tests for American universities. It's a jarring contrast, then, to return to JFK airport and see such popular titles as "The Post-American World," representing the fashionable tendency among U.S. political elites to talk down American standing in the Middle East.

Granted, it is necessary to analyze America's influence in the world, but it is quite another matter to almost campaign for a less powerful America, believing that somehow this spells progress. I am not an American, but I firmly believe that, on balance, American power is a force for good in the world. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was right to remind us repeatedly in Britain that the modern world is led by a free nation, a democracy, and not Russia or China.

Yet it's American conventional wisdom to believe that the fall of Arab dictators, particularly Egypt's, weakens American leverage in the Middle East. And this thinking risks becoming self-fulfilling prophecy unless the U.S. government finds its backbone and recognizes that U.S. power is not limited to backing tyrants. The current trajectory—of dancing around developments, leading from behind and expressing defeatist thinking—needs to stop.

Egypt's military government detects this American weakness, which is why it recently had the audacity to raid the offices of several American nongovernmental organizations. These were not obscure shops but the federally funded National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. The military also raided a German NGO. In response, the Germans immediately summoned the Egyptian ambassador. Egyptian democracy activists predicted that the U.S. would do the same, or at least issue a powerful condemnation from the White House. Neither happened.

Sensing the indignation and expectations among Egyptian revolutionaries on Twitter, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted, "We call on Egyptian government to end harassment of NGO staff as well as return all property." I responded by challenging the embassy: "Then what?"

Officials answered by asking me what should be done. This lack of confidence, fear of offending, and inability to take a stance stems from the default belief in American weakness and decline. I tweeted back to the officials that the U.S. government should ask its military allies to return to their barracks and cease killing protesters—and that it should tie these demands to U.S. aid. Yes, that small matter of $1.3 billion annually, $39 billion to date.

U.S. aid to countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, and trade and security arrangements with countries such as Saudi Arabia, all give America leverage. Washington doesn't need to regularly remind its allies of these arrangements or use these tools bluntly. "Soft power," wrote Harvard's Joseph Nye, is "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments." But to use this attraction, the U.S. government must believe in itself, project confidence, and realize that, despite left-wing propaganda, America remains hugely attractive across the Middle East.

The Arab revolutionaries did not look to China or Russia for a model of government. They looked to four-year presidential terms, inspired directly by American democracy. Islamist leaders such as Tunisia's Mohamed Ghannouchi condemn French secularism but highlight American accommodation of religion as a model of a secular state that is less hostile to religion. Across the Arab world, satellite dishes face west. Hollywood films, McDonald's, Starbucks, jeans, baseball caps, Facebook and Twitter are the widespread norm.

Even those Egyptians who shout anti-American claptrap—the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi cousins—crave meetings and photo-ops with visiting American politicians, such as Sen. John Kerry recently. They seek an American stamp of approval that bestows legitimacy, modernity, and association with global power. Without it, they remain pariahs.

In the many meetings I have had with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Middle Eastern Islamists over the past year, they show animosity toward the U.S. only with regard to Israel. It's clear that Israel won't enjoy the relations with Egypt that it did under Hosni Mubarak. There is no stamina for war with Israel, but this generation of Arabs won't recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Trying to force them to do so will not only fail but risks compromising American influence. It is wiser to allow for the passage of time, and help the Palestinians realize their dream of a dignified, free state.

In his important 2004 book "The Case for Democracy," the former Soviet dissident and Israeli diplomat Natan Sharansky predicted the rise of democratic forces in Arab countries. As Egypt and other Arab nations experiment with democracy, the U.S. cannot be seen to be weak, nor craving for yesteryear, but instead must support the people's cries of freedom.

Mr. Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of "The Islamist" (Penguin, 2007).

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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