Once more President Barack Obama is being tested, and this time the test is not coming from within his country. No, this test is coming courtesy of the Egyptian people, who apparently have figured out, after thirty years, that living in a dictatorship is undesirable and have decided to revolt en masse against Hosni Mubarek.
Predictably pundits on both sides of the political aisle have weighed in with their opinions. Neocons fear that if Mubarek falls, Egypt will become yet another extremist Muslim nation that will be a hotbed for terrorists and pose a threat directly to Israel and indirectly to the United States. They want the Obama Administration to send a clear message of support for the regime, with some even suggesting an armed incursion should things get ugly. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, are calling for the Administration to throw its support behind the revolutionary forces that are calling for Mubarek to resign. They believe that it would be in the best interest of America to be on the right side of a revolution for once.
And while I sympathize with many liberals and progressives, like the Iranian demonstrations in the summer of 2009, this situation calls for prudence and not rash judgment. Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. has had a horrible track record with respect to backing dictators, especially ones in the Middle East, but the Egyptian situation is somewhat unique and extremely delicate.
On the one hand if America sides with the revolutionaries and Mubarek manages to survive and ushers in enough reforms to placate his people, our relationship with him would be severely compromised. With the Suez Canal hanging in the balance – along with the billions of barrels of oil that pass through it each year – the whole economy of the Western hemisphere could be threatened. And then there’s the delicate relationship between Israel and Egypt. Mubarek has never felt comfortable being viewed as a “supporter” of the Jewish state’s right to exist. Antagonizing him could provide just the excuse he needs to adopt a more anti-American stance, which would endear him to extremist elements within the Middle East.
On the other hand, supporting him, as the neocons want, would only add more fuel to the fires of discontent that run deep within the Arab and Islamic communities. Backing a regime, which is seen as unpopular in the Middle East would be yet another example of “the great Satan” exerting its influence in a region where it isn’t wanted or appreciated. Less than ten years after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is still desperately trying to repair its badly tarnished reputation. Adding Egypt to its trophy chest would be the ultimate nightmare of nightmares that could well destroy any hope that the region has to one day know a lasting peace.
The only safe hand is the one that Obama is currently playing: continue to call for reforms while being careful not to appear to be taking sides. The strategy appears to be working. After he addressed the Egyptian people, which did not go over well, Administration officials behind the scenes have been pressuring Mubarek to step up reforms. Obama revealed that Mubarek “recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place.” Privately, everybody knows that he will have no choice but to step down. But he will do so without any undue influence from without.
By staying out of the limelight, an orderly and peaceful transition can take place and can occur on Egyptian terms, with no meddling from the U.S. and, more importantly, without America continuing to pick the same scab that has undermined its prestige in this region for generations. Sometimes being an interested bystander has its advantages.