President Barack Obama has a “Shah problem” in Egypt. Recent events in Egypt recall the street protests of 1978 in Tehran when President Jimmy Carter had to decide whether to remain loyal to the Pahlavi regime, a long-standing American-backed dictatorship—or whether the time had come to abandon the Shah and support a popular uprising demanding human rights and democracy. Carter tried to have it both ways, modulating his support for the Shah, calling for political liberalization, and warning the Shah against the use of state violence against unarmed protesters. Obama seems to be following the same script, and the results may well turn out to be equally fraught with unintended consequences.
The 30-year regime of Gen. Hosni Mubarak is finished. Last week’s events show that Mubarak has lost even the veneer of legitimacy. As in Tehran in 1978, a consensus has emerged from the Egyptian street that this pharaoh must go. A broad coalition of liberal human rights activists, genuine social democrats, old Nasserites, and Muslim Brotherhood advocates are supporting the spontaneous but politically inchoate street uprisings across the country. It was a similar coalition of secular liberals and religiously inspired political activists that brought down the Shah in February 1979—and only months later did Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shi’ite clerics forge a theocratic dictatorship.
This must be the Obama administration’s fear: that after Mubarak an anti-Western, Islamist regime will come to power, most probably through the popular election of the Muslim Brotherhood. If elections are held, this outcome is not merely a probability; it is a near certainty. After decades of repressing the secular opposition, the Brotherhood remains the only political movement with an organized membership capable of providing nongovernmental charitable services. This gives it a reliable political base in the slums of Cairo and Alexandria. Despite being banned as a political party, polls indicate that if genuine elections were held the Brotherhood would command at least a large plurality. The Brotherhood is actually a much more moderate political force than Tehran’s Shi’ite clerics. But if and when it comes to power, it will not fail to remind the Egyptian people that it was billions of American military aid dollars that kept a bland, uncharismatic Mubarak in power for three decades.
The only other possible outcome is a military coup that unseats Mubarak but brings to power another Mubarak-like general. But the Egyptian army so far has demonstrated that it will not fire on its own people—just as the Shah’s army hesitated to do the same.
Given this reality, how should the Obama administration respond to the current crisis? It is imperative that Washington finds a way to place itself on the side of those political forces advocating change and reform—despite America’s historical baggage of temporizing with Arab kings and dictators. Similar popular demonstrations are already taking place in other Arab nations, and Obama needs to make it clear that America is not aligned with the Arab status quo. Essentially, we need to let the dictators fall or stand without our interference. We need to signal that America’s interests in the Middle East are not driven by our addiction to oil. Washington should clearly say it will support any regime that comes to power through legitimate elections—even if it is the Brotherhood.
No other recent American president could orchestrate such a change in American policy. Some in Washington’s foreign policy establishment are surely urging Obama to stand by the Arab autocrats in the hallowed name of stability. They are wrong. Obama the transformative candidate can still be Obama the transformative president in America’s foreign relations. Obama still has the relatively clean slate and the rhetorical powers to execute a pivot in American policy. In his June 2009 Cairo speech Obama said, “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
That speech really said it all. But now the moment has come when President Obama must demonstrate that his words were not just words. One way or the other, hard consequences will follow. The end of the Mubarak era will also spell an end to Egypt’s cold peace with Israel. No post-Mubarak government, and certainly not one populated with Muslim Brotherhood members, will tolerate the continued blockade of their Hamas cousins in Gaza. Israel will thus be faced with additional strategic incentives to end its occupation of the West Bank, dismantle its settlements and quickly recognize a Palestinian state based largely on its 1967 borders. But as the recent leak of Palestinian-Israeli negotiating transcripts demonstrates, the detailed contours of a final settlement are all in place.
Change is coming to the Arab world. It can no longer be held back. So the pragmatist and not just the idealist in Obama would be wise to make it clear that he really is on the side of the protesters in the streets of Cairo. It is time to stop hedging our bets.