The Future of US/Egypt Relations

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Thousands of Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square heeding a call by the opposition for a 'march of a million' on February 1, 2011 (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, NPR's National Security correspondent, Rachel Martin, spoke about the potential of the popular uprising spreading further through the middle east, and the uncertainty around what will come next in Egypt, assuming Hosni Mubarak falls.

King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his government Tuesday in an apparent concession to protesters, sparking rumors that the wildfire revolution raging from Tunisia to Egypt won't stop at two countries.

Jordan, like Egypt, is a critical ally for the United States in the region. King Abdullah II has his critics, but overall is a much more popular figure than Mubarak, said Martin, so it's unclear whether protests will continue there. Demonstrations have been taking place in Amman for months against unemployment, high food and fuel prices, but Tunisia's successful revolt and Egypt's massive protests have injected a burst of energy into the movement.

You've got this lethal combo of a lot of young folks who are tapped into social networks, very internet savvy, and their expectations are rising. They look at their governments and say, 'You're not providing for us. We don't have work here.' And then they look in their neighborhoods, in the larger region, they see these protests happening and it's igniting things around the Middle East.

Each country in the region often referred to as the "Arab world" has a distinct set of variables affecting its political plight. Jordan has a huge Palestinian population (about half of the entire country), much of which is young, grew up in refugee camps, and is unemployed. But the harsh police state in Egypt and Tunisia does not exist in the same way.

So the million dollar question facing the U.S. is if we're seeing a type of fundamental restructuring in North Africa and the Middle East, a version of 1989's perestroika of the Soviet Union. The administration won't admit publicly that's what they are concerned with—but Martin said it is purposely being cryptic.

I think what's really interesting about this situation is how much of a spectator the United States is really being forced to play. They don't have a lot of options right now, which is ironic considering the amount of money the United States has funeled into the Egyptian military over the past 30 years. But how much leverage has that bought in a situation like this? It's really hard to say.

On the one hand, the U.S. can't afford to be too closely aligned with Mubarak, and on the other, they can't directly call for his ouster, because then Obama would look like the enemy of democracy (By Tuesday afternoon, though, there were reports that Obama urged Mubarak not to seek reelection in September). The ambiguity leaves ElBaradei room to criticize the U.S. administration for not supporting the opposition.

It would make sense to hear him say, 'Listen, United States, if you're going to preach human rights, if you're going to talk about the need to pursue democratic reforms in Egypt, this is your chance! This is your chance to get behind the protest movement, to support the call for true democracy, and to do it with gusto, not with this kind of mealy mouthed suggestion that it's time for democracy and we're going to wait and see. He wants a much stronger line from the administration and this gives him the street cred that he needs because he is an outsider.

ElBaradei has spent a great deal of time living in the West, so he also has to show he's not a puppet of the U.S. to gain Egyptian support, said Martin. But the reality is that ElBaradei may be more palatable to the West than he would be to the Egyptian population, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, despite their backing him for now. Martin thinks it's unlikely the Brotherhood will support him in the long run. "They'll want to field their own candidate, but they see him now as a tool to get them to September," she said.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, the U.S. administration and media outlets are scrambling to figure out its identity. Some experts report that the party has evolved and is no longer the hard line Islamist movement that it once was, and that Mubarak just fed that reputation as a justification for military funding and U.S. support. That's ElBaradei's line, though of course he needs the Brotherhood's backing to get anywhere in Egypt, because they are the only cohesive opposition party even if they aren't at the heart of the uprising.

What's interesting about these protests is that they are such a seemingly organic, grassroots protest movement, from not just the Muslim Brotherhood, but from secular Egyptians who are critical of the Mubarak regime, but who are not advocating for some kind of theocracy.

In the end, the U.S. is primarily interested in stability in the region — not only concerning Israel, but to secure trade through the Suez canal and American intelligence operations to combat Islamic fundamentalism. "It's hard to overstate how important it is to have a government in there that is friendly to the U.S." said Martin.


Rachel Martin


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Comments [12]

Groundhog from Bronx

Fred, you are correct! Brian allowed "Seth" to cite William Pierce, author of "Who Rules America" (take a wild guess who...) at length. Clearly, this contributes nothing to understanding the situation. Brian, be careful man!

Feb. 01 2011 12:01 PM
Magda from Prospect Heights

There have been several Islamist groups trying to realize their dream of a Moslem state in Egypt. BUT, they had wildly different strategies to get there. At least one gruops chose violence and terrorism and we saw the results in the news. The Moslem Brotherhood went another route: participation in the system. They run in elections and try to effect change that way. I don't know what Egypt under the Moslem Brotherhood would look like, and I suspect I wouldn't want to live there, but it's important to note that they are not violent or radical. Although Egyptians are very religious on the whole, they have not historically supported the violent Islamist groups.

Feb. 01 2011 11:34 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Since Islam is inherently antidemocratic, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish, particularly anti-Jewish state, the Middle East is going to be in turmoil for a long time to come no matter what. As for ISrael, why should it be concerned one way or the other? Just as Switzerland survived the upheavals in Europe during the religious wars, so Israel will remain an island of reason and prosperity regardless of what happens in the Muslim world. Israel has discovered large natural gas and oil resources offshore that should make it energy independent, and probably independent of US military aid even if the US chooses to stop such aid to both Israel and Egypt. So I don't see any major downside for ISrael resulting from this turmoil in the ME, although Iran may be the one with most to gain. I could be wrong, but I just don't see where Israel has to be overly concerned about all that is going on around it. It is like the calm center of a storm going on around it.

Feb. 01 2011 11:32 AM
so thanks!

george -- i was just wondering why -- for once -- "the jews" (or zionists or israelphiles -- ?--) aren't being blamed for something bad in relation to an arab problem.

(speaking as a general supporter of israel i personally would be glad to see more peaceful democracies in the world and middle east. i'm guessing most israelis feel like that too.)

Feb. 01 2011 11:28 AM
salvatore principato from manhattan

instead of spouting generalizations that Mohamed ElBaradei is "anti-american" Rachel Martin should give examples. During the run up to the U.S. war in Iraq the CIA was directing ElBaradei to inspect certain sites for weapons of mass destruction. During this process president Bush kicked him out of Iraq in order to start the war. I think to say America was anti-ElBaradei is more accurate than the other way around

Feb. 01 2011 11:25 AM
Freddy Jenkins

There was a caller who just cited William Pierce, the guy who wrote the Turner Diaries!!!!

Feb. 01 2011 11:23 AM

Once again a media representative has used the term "looting," and not negative enough, Rachel Marttin has added the word "rampant." Not there, she's using the most hyperbolic negative language--based on whose reports?--that elsewhere--i.e., Al Jazeera, which actually has reporters there--have characterized substantially differently--and bothers to juxtapose that language with broader descriptions of cooperation. What some US reporters describe as "vigilantes" others have described as groups providing nighttime "protection" of their home communities. If reporters not present there have to describe what may be episodic criminal behavior with some qualifiers--"what has been called by some" "what has also been seen with cooperative actions"--it would at least give some verisimilitude to her report.

Feb. 01 2011 11:22 AM
dan k from Chelsea

I don't see how we can turn the war in Iraq into "Operation Iraqi Freedom," sacrificing multitudes of both American and Iraqi lives, and then not support a popular uprising for democracy in Egypt, for which we have to sacrifice no blood. If we don't get behind a march to democracy there, our moral voice will be scandalized even further.

Feb. 01 2011 11:19 AM
George in Huntington

Yeah, why so quiet, Israelophiles? Are you stunned to see an ascendant Arab democratic movement? This was inevitable. The old plan -- surrounding Israel with a bulwark of bought-of dictators -- is crumbling. It's a new Middle East, and Arabs are claiming their birthright.

Feb. 01 2011 11:19 AM

she's in Washington,eh?

so... the question for her would be... what is her analysis of a federal judge yesterday derailing Romney's Obamacare?

can we get in front of at least @#% story here?

Feb. 01 2011 11:15 AM
Mike from Brighton Beach

Do neocons get ANYcredit for these calls for democratic elections?

Feb. 01 2011 11:12 AM

These are comments questions for Rachel Martin: Are American and Israeli interests always the same? How can the US protect Israel and help Israel deal with the growing tide of Arab democracies, (after all, they are proud to be a democratic Jewish State), without harming our own self interests? I believe now is the time to put pressure on Israel to freeze settlements permanently, by cutting aid until they do, and urging Israel do all they honestly can to create a Palestinian State. Especially in view of Al Jazeera's release of proof of Palestinian willingness to compromise, and Israeli intransigence. The creation of a genuine Palestinian State, could defang much anti Israel and anti American feeling in Muslim countries and the rest of the world, including Europe and Canada.

Feb. 01 2011 10:46 AM

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