Obama’s Egyptian Dilemma

Fifty-five years ago, the United States thwarted an effort by the British, French and Israelis to secure the Suez Canal and topple an Egyptian dictator. So here we are once more, face to face with the great dilemma in American foreign policy. People seek change and an end to undemocratic rule. The leadership, desperate to cling on to power, put tanks on the street and attempt to clamp down on the mass protests. Where does America stand? As a nation born of revolution against a perceived tyrannical empire, its natural inclination is to support the masses, but as a global hegemony, it has an interest in a balance of power and fears a domino effect that could have wider and longer lasting impacts than could be perceived by the protesters on the streets.

The scenes in Egypt are alarming for so many reasons. That they follow hot on the heels of the events in Tunisia indicate that in an increasingly interconnected world, the masses will be inspired to take events into their own hands if they see the potential for change. Clearly, change has come to Tunisia. For Egypt to fall to similar tensions would be a seismic shift that should send warning signals to all nations in the region. Uncertainty is the great fear of all diplomats, who seek stability and peaceful evolutionary change, if indeed change is necessary.

Ironically, of course, ‘regime change’ was the ambition of the George W. Bush Administration, but focused on Iraq, certainly not Egypt, a nation that the US sees as a major ally in the middles east, supplying it with billions of dollars in aid and military hardware. Since the Camp David Accords Egypt has been seen as the model ally in the Middle East and vitally the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel. First Sadat and then Mubarak proved to be strong leaders capable of leading Egypt with an iron fist, albeit wrapped in a velvet glove for western consumption, surviving on a mix of tourism and US aid.

America’s great fear is what comes next: The greatest fear must be a repeat of the fall of the Shah and the rise of a theocracy, either directly or as the result of knee-jerk elections. At present this appears unlikely and the benefit to the Mubarak regime is that the protests do not appear to be coalescing around a single opposition figure. For those in Washington attempting to brief the president, the logical figure may well be Elbaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Placed under house arrest this afternoon, he may well be the one figure who could be acceptable to Washington, would signify change in Egypt and prevent the rise of more radical elements that would threaten Egypt’s standing in the west.

Reports say the military and the police are clashing and may appear to be refusing to clamp down on the protests. If Mubarak looses the military, it would appear to be all over for his regime and for his hopes to be succeeded by his son. The longer the situation goes without an appearance from Mubarak, the more isolated and removed he will appear and in such a fluid situation, perception is more important than ever.

Flights into Egypt are starting to be suspended, the Internet is being restricted and the military appears to be on the brink…For the United States, for President Obama and for the Middle East, a great deal is at stake tonight. Get it right, and a new movement for democratic change could be nurtured into existence in a series of nations. Get it wrong, and the entire region could descend into a tinderbox of strife as a new generation seek to redefine the region on their own terms, with or without American approval. The risks therefore extend to the United States and to its place in the world.

The failure of the British to succeed in what became the Suez Canal Crisis ended its aspirations to a continued empire and to the downfall of a British Prime Minister. At the White House, Obama’s in initial statement was a clear example of equivocation. Unusually it is the State Department, headed by Hillary Clinton that has come out with stronger language. If Obama appears impotent or unsure, or hesitant, he will be personally damaged on the world stage. Worse, his actions or any perceived timidity risk the long-term hegemony of the United States. I wonder how all this looks from the vantage point of Beijing?