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America’s Egyptian dilemma and revolution’s realpolitik

January 27, 2011

However geopolitically marginal the Tunisian crisis may have seemed to the United States, there is no question that with uprisings in Egypt and to a lesser extent, in Yemen, the American interests are now at stake in the increasingly tumultuous Arab street. Should the United States welcome these events? If so, how much?

Shadi Hamid provides an incisive analysis of the dilemma the United States faces with the increasing instability of the Arab autocracies. Gulliver, at Ink Spots, follows up with his solution, a return to the principles of John Quincy Adams’s famous independence day address:

America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. […] Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

This kind of all-talk, no-rock solution sits poorly with internationalist liberals and neoconservatives alike. Why not throw ourselves whole-heartedly behind the opposition? For much the same reason we should not tie our interests to the regime. When it comes to foreign policy, we have, to repeat the old cliché, no permanent friends or enemies, simply interests (although these too, change). The primary logic behind increasing pressure on Mubarak and putting out feelers to the opposition is the same as the logic behind keeping ourselves clear of the Green Revolution in Iran. The primary determinants of popular revolution’s success in Egypt, as in Tunisia or Iran or most other countries, are each state’s own people and local conditions.

Nothing succeeds like success, and backing people who are losing locally is a poor way to advance US interests. However, just as supporting Mubarak and other secular autocrats is not necessarily the same thing as supporting stability, supporting the opposition is not necessarily supporting democracy or US interests. Revolutions, even successful ones, do not always pan out predictably. When the Bastille fell, was it clear the Terror was to follow, or Napoleon after that? When the Romanovs fell, the revolution’s well wishers in the West hardly predicted the rise of Bolshevism. The coalition which overthrew the Shah included Western liberals, moderate Islamists, socialist Third Worldists and weakened, but still active, Marxist groups on the sidelines.

The US should keep its options open in Egypt, but committing itself to the opposition when it knows not who will prevail, or what sort of system they will build, is folly. We, as private citizens, should laud Egyptians for opposing an increasingly severe crackdown, but we should not then pretend democracy simply springs from the street. Elites and leaders in the corridors of power, from a variety of factions and persuasions, will ultimately decide what kind of system emerges when the shooting stops and the tear gas clears.

We don’t know who will emerge victorious from Egypt’s struggle, and there’s not much beyond words we can responsibly offer to affect their odds, or determine the system they might replace the current regime with. We should, however, be ready to deal with whoever emerges, whether they are liberal democrats, reactionary authoritarians, or staunch Islamists. If that makes Americans uncomfortable, perhaps they should ask themselves about the overall strategy that left them so invested in who rules Cairo in the first place.

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