Daily Sun, February 7th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam
While President Hosne Mubarak is facing the heat as the movement to oust him gets stronger, the United States too is facing tense moments with the uncertain future of a President who has been the lynch pin in its foreign policy in the region. The US has backed President Mubarak to the tilt and has looked the other way when his regime violated human rights at will to deal with political opposition.
Egypt has been too crucial to the United States for a variety of reasons to concern it with President Mubarak’s treatment of political opposition. Egypt is the most populous Arab state that controls the Suez Canal through which the west’s oil passes from the oil fields in the Middle East. The US needs Egypt for the ME peace process and in the past, has used Egypt’s land and airspace to launch attacks against Iraq during both the Gulf Wars. Egypt loathes Iran that draws it closer to the USA and it has recognized the closest ally of the US in the region, Israel. Finally, Egypt is a major military power in the region that makes friendship with it a strategic necessity for the United States.
The United States thus simply cannot even think of a government in Egypt in a post-Mubarak era that would not extend to it the same unqualified backing and support for its policies and priorities in the region as President Mubarak has done. In fact, President Obama thought it necessary to re-define the importance of Egypt and President Mubarak immediately after becoming the President, conscious that his predecessor had rubbed President Mubarak the wrong way. On a visit to Cairo just after the 2005 Presidential election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made very critical comments that had angered President Mubarak a great deal. She did not stop at the critical comments but went ahead and met the opposition leader who contested against President Mubarak to rub salt to the President’s wounds.
Therefore it was no coincidence that President Obama had chosen Cairo as the capital from where to send his administration’s message of friendship to the Muslim world. The choice of Cairo was also meant to bring President Mubarak back as an old and trusted friend. The Obama administration has also continued to give Egypt extra attention in the context of military and economic aid. In fact, in the foreign policy priority of the Obama administration both for the region and the Muslim world, Egypt has been given a very major focus. Thus, even when the regime of President Mubarak grossly interfered in the last parliamentary elections to give the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) a walk-over victory, the United States did not have even a word of criticism.
The current political turmoil in Egypt and in the region therefore is a matter of serious concern for the United States together with the wave of popular dissatisfaction against regimes that the US has supported and sustained. In Tunisia, suicide by immolation of a frustrated youth was enough to sweep President Ben Ali from power after 23 years of absolute rule. Since the Tunisian uprising, the same wave of popular uprising against dictators has spread across the Middle East and neighbouring Muslim countries. Hence when popular uprising against President Mubarak spilled into the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, it did not surprise anyone. In Egypt, as in Tunisia, harsh economic conditions are bringing people to the streets but it is people’s wrath for 30 years of ruthless dictatorship that is acting as the driving force to encourage Egyptians to fight to overthrow President Mubarak.
Although President Mubarak is tenuously holding on to the strings of power and trying one desperate move after another, the die is cast for him. That notwithstanding, his exit will not be immediate as many in Egypt and abroad hope and expect. By bringing the military into power sharing, President Mubarak has played cleverly his otherwise weak hand because the military as an institution is held in Egypt with respect. The fact that the military so far has sided with the protesters has gone to President Mubarak’s advantage to buy him time. His address to the nation where he said he would like to stay on till the next presidential election in September has not gone down well with the protesters who want him out immediately. However, the protests have no leadership or the momentum to force immediate victory. A lot thus will depend on what pressures are brought upon the President by the United States and western powers.
The US on its part has abandoned President Mubarak totally with President Obama telling him to start packing and the European leaders backing the US President. The clashes of President Mubarak’s supporters who have very little support have further worried President Mubarak’s one time friends in the west because such clashes would not extend President Mubarak’s regime but could push Egypt and the region into the hands of Islamic fundamentalist forces. There are supporters of such forces in the middle and lower levels of the military that could align with such forces in law and order breaks down completely as a result of clashes between the protesters and the supporters of President Mubarak.
For the US, the stakes are very high because these dictators and regimes facing ouster are important elements of its foreign policy. It must therefore ensure that the new regimes that come in these countries are friendly. More importantly, it must also try to ensure that these dictatorships are not replaced by the Islamic fundamentalists because if the fundamentalists come to power, the region could face an upheaval where US interests would suffer the most.
Egypt offers the US the best bet to bring peace to the region and stop the fundamentalist Islamic forces from gaining political power. Egypt is a secular society with 10% of its people, Christians. President Mubarak has nurtured and strengthened the inherent secular character of Egyptian society. In Egypt, the girl in a modern dress and the other in Hijab can walk in downtown Cairo or for that matter in any part of the country without any eyebrow raised. Therefore, there is no in-built societal support in Egypt for fundamentalist forces as the MB.
The US should also utilize to its advantage the good standing of the military in Egypt. Its first task should be to see that President Mubarak leaves quickly and without pushing the country into internal conflict. It should then work with the military, encourage the formation of an interim government perhaps under someone like Dr. ElBaradei and then ensure a free and fair election as soon as possible. It should encourage the military to dismantle the old political system and reform it so that a democratic system could function. The huge military aid USA gives Egypt should be a strong incentive for the military to follow the US line with the same commitment given by President Mubarak. USA must not repeat the mistakes it made with the Mubarak regime and must do everything to establish a democratic Egypt to protect its interests in the region.
A democratic Egypt is the key to peace not just in Egypt itself but in the Middle East. USA must acknowledge it past mistakes of playing favorites with dictators and stand by the people of the region if not for anything else, for its own interests. It could start doing that by making Egypt as an example.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to Egypt