The Egyptian Dilemma

With Hosni Mubarak ailing, the Obama administration must choose between stability and change.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak has been around for a while. He assumed the presidency of Egypt a long time ago, on Oct. 14, 1981, following the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. That was one month after Simon and Garfunkel’s legendary Central Park concert and six weeks before Muhammad Ali’s last professional boxing match. At 82, Mubarak is an icon, the last of the lions, a walking shadow of a Middle East that is rapidly fading from memory. Assad the father —gone. King Hussein —gone. Saddam Hussein —gone. King Fahd —gone. Of course, Israel’s Shimon Peres is still with us, and he might be the only one who can be considered Mubarak’s equal. But Peres serves in the ceremonial role of Israel’s president, while Mubarak is still responsible for the lives of Egypt’s 83 million people, still in charge of the Arab world’s largest nation.

He is ailing and seems fragile, and there’s constant talk around him about “scenarios” and “succession.” The circle of “after Mubarak” articles and think-tank conferences widens by the day. Amid repeated protestations from Egyptian authorities—denying reports that Mubarak has cancer, dismissing stories that he is in poor health—it is clear that the countdown to transition has begun. And the talk isn’t about only the father but also about the son, Gamal, the possible heir to the presidency. If Gamal is appointed president (or “elected”; there’s really no difference), Egyptians will no longer be able to mock their Syrian brothers for appointing Hafez Assad’s son, Bashar, as his successor 10 years ago. President Mubarak repeatedly insisted that an “inherited” presidency is not the course he had planned for Egypt. But recent changes to Egypt’s constitution were interpreted by many experts as a fix that will provide for exactly such an arrangement.

Incumbent regimes in the Arab world, monarchical and republican alike, “have weathered the period of intense, worldwide political change that has followed the end of the Cold War without giving up much of their power,” concluded a Carnegie paper on “Incumbent Regimes and the ‘King’s Dilemma’ in the Arab World.” The regimes have also weathered many transitions from fathers to sons in recent years (five in the recent decade and a half, with a good chance of that number reaching seven soon enough: Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, and Libya). In almost all cases, the sons raised “hopes both at home and abroad” that the new generation would pursue an agenda of “economic and political transformation.” In all cases, they ended up attempting to advance the economic front but offering very little politically.

But with all due respect to Morocco and Libya, Egypt is the big prize. Not as commanding as it was when Gamal Abdel Nasser was in charge and rode high on the wave of Pan-Arabism (to a ruinous end). Not as influential. Not as bold as it was when President Sadat dared to be the first Arab leader to sign a peace agreement with arch-enemy Israel. Nevertheless, Egypt is still “a major U.S. strategic partner on a wide range of Middle East issues. It has the largest population of any country in the region, a growing economy, and the beginnings of a real middle class.” And that middle class looks with critical eyes at Egypt’s “cumbersome constitution designed to disguise one-man rule, its creaky centralised administration, its venal, brutal and unaccountable security forces and its failure to deliver such social goods as decent schools, health care or civic rights.”

Egypt is not an easy country to manage. It is swamped by complaints about an excess of illiberal laws and a shortage of basic human rights, by just criticism of the regime’s brutal treatment of citizens—but it is also burdened by expectations that it should serve as a counterbalance to the expansion of radical Islamism and the growing influence of Iran and its proxies. It is troubled by domestic radicalism and the possible rise to prominence of Muslim Brotherhood types. The first two concerns call for change, for an easing of the regime’s strict authority; the last two call for stability and continuation, for another 30-year Mubarak rule.

Egypt is the most visible current manifestation of the stability vs. change dilemma. Egypt’s “neighbors and Western allies want and expect continuity”—while Egyptian reformers are vying to create “a mass movement for change,” as they battle not just the political passivity of the Egyptian masses but also Western allies’ reluctance to help foster such change.

Both sides—those preaching reform and those wanting continuity—seem reluctant to admit that they have no good way of predicting the implications of either policy for the future of Egypt and the region as a whole. On May 11, Carnegie’s Robert Kagan wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her “strongly to take an interest in promoting democratic reform in Egypt.” Tamara Coffman Wittes of the Brookings Institution explained that “there is not a zero-sum tradeoff between promoting democracy and protecting stability in Egypt.”

That’s wishful thinking. And behind such logic there’s another dilemma—the one the Obama administration might not be able to escape when Mubarak senior leaves the stage: Should U.S. policy be guided by principled insistence on reform and democracy promotion, with an eye on the long term? Is it also willing to pay a price and ride the frightening roller coaster of Egypt’s transition period? Or should Washington stick with a Mubarak-style ruler in the hope that a continuation of the consolidation of power will serve the interest of stability and thus postpone a resolution for Egyptian freedom-fighters?

Will Obama and Clinton “take the plunge” toward supporting democratic reforms more vigorously?, asked Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown’s Democracy and Governance Program. “The Obama administration,” he wrote, “has tried to balance its strategic and democratic commitments by embracing an ingenious solution: channel the lion’s share of our democracy aid to civil society groups in the hope that their demands for change will eventually compel Arab governments to democratize—while avoiding the strategic discomfort of placing too much pressure on our autocratic allies to pursue genuine political reform.”

More pressure means being more daring in Middle East affairs, having more willingness to take risks. For Obama, it means both a change of habit, a change of policy, and a change of course back to (a possibly altered version of) the discredited Bush freedom agenda. That’s the irony encapsulated in Obama’s dilemma: More pressure on Mubarak was once the policy advocated by Condoleezza Rice, but it was resisted by the Egyptian regime and eventually abandoned by the Bush administration for the sake of stability.

We’ve come full circle. Whatever Obama chooses to do, it will be a repetition of Bush policy. Whatever he does, he will be blamed either for being cynical or for being irresponsible. Whatever he does, he will alienate Egyptians. He just needs to decide whether it’s more appropriate to alienate the regime or the reformers. And he has to make this decision without being able to know what the people of Egypt will do when the old lion stops roaring—and without the reassuring presence of the most reliable of all Middle East advisers, Hosni Mubarak.

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