Egypt in the Eyes of the USA

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Egyptians gather in central Cairo's Tahrir square February 14, 2011 around portraits of those who perished during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak

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, Ambassador Thomas Pickering of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy reflected on what the Egyptian revolution will mean for the American relationship to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.

With the recent and surprising success of populist uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the question on everyone's mind is whether other nations in the Middle East might tread the same path toward revolution. And with good reason: Yemen and Jordan have already shown signs of public unrest, suggesting a "domino effect" that threatens to sweep the region. The Muslim world has undergone dramatic change in recent months. Is it ripe for more? According to Thomas Pickering, it's too early to tell.

Certainly there are clear indications that some would like to see it spread; we're seeing that in Jordan and Yemen rapidly, then there's Sudan, Algeria, and a number of other places. Two things to think about: In one area of Middle East, the wealthy countries of the gulf, certainly, there will be efforts to reward the population in order to avoid protester power. In other parts, I think there will be extreme deployment of force on the streets, and perhaps a willingness to shoot.

Jordan's monarchy has taken steps in the first direction, the king having dismissed his government in anticipation of protests. Pickering said that nations like Sudan and Algeria were more likely to take the second, more violent tack.

Moving forward, it behooves the United States to assess the effect of its policy toward the Egyptian revolt. With similar standoffs on the horizon, and with different governments expected to adopt different degrees of concession and repression, Pickering says we should ask ourselves what we did right in this case, and what actions we were wise to avoid.

At one and the same time, we have a strong realist and a strong idealist tradition in our country. It was clear throughout the Egyptian problem that we were trying to strike a balance, and that over a period of time led us to see street protesters and our idealism as the primary effort we should be making. I think that will continue to be a question for American foreign policy. It won't radically change America's views. It won't go into an active effort to change governments around the world just becauase they don't represent the highest form of democracy. To some extent, that's intervention. To some extent, we all know democracy works best when it comes from the country itself, out of its own traditions, its own people, its own leadership. Egypt has demonstrated that, not that a foreign country can make those kinds of things happen. We ought to be very carfeul about that.

Pickering warned against the notion that the U.S. can affect any change it wishes to see, whether by force, which "has proved its bankruptcy in Iraq and Afghanistan," or by persuasion, as in the case of our dealings with Hosni Mubarak, where coercion toward more developed civil society proved futile.

But these uprisings from within provide an opportunity for the U.S. to influence democratic transitions, so long as our government exhibits delicate diplomacy. It's not a matter of telling foreign administrations how to run their country.

We're not here to run around the world trying to do in our friends; we're trying to persuade them diplomatically that the wave of the future may not be the kind of government they presently conduct. They should maybe think about moving on the other side of change toward reform that will make a difference.

Turning back toward Egypt, Brian Lehrer asked Pickering what he saw in store for the nation, now under a tenuous military rule that could easily tumble back into authoritarianism. Pickering said that the military's support and pacifism was a blessing during the protests, but the necessary focus on restoring order could be a complicating factor in the public's demand for speedy yet substantial change.

They've made promises about elections in six months and other reforms, such as removing the tremendously oppressive laws they've got about arbitrary arrests, etc. There will be, I think, for some time a play back and forth between the military and leaders of the street movement about where, how and when these changes will take place, and in the meantime what kind of governance Egypt can expect in the immediate future to remove the vestiges of Mubarak's administration, if not to immedaitely introduce the kind of changes that will be necessary to see a fully elected democracy, which I think is everybody's objective. We're over the dramatic part, but we may not be over the hard part yet—that being how to put these things in place in society, which is very much alarmed and fragile, sensitive, difficult and distrustful of the military on one hand, and on the other hand has been heavily reliant on them over the last 18, 19 days for their support in making these changes become possible.

For many Egyptians in Cairo, Pickering said, keeping the military honest means staying on the streets.

There's a concern that the longer this goes on without a continuation of popular pressure, the more the military might be prersuaded to say, "Gee, it's all over now. Maybe we should go back to old system. We were safer and better off." That tendency will be there; it can't be eliminated. What I see among people in the street is that we have to go back to Tahrir Square because that's out major pressure point. That's where the world watches and where Egyptians watch, and where we can have the most influence. I would hope and expect pressure for change will continue; it's in the long-term future interest of Egypt, but it has to be done with care and in a way that meets the majority demands for a shift.

Of course, what conversation about the future of Egypt would be complete without a mention of the Muslim Brotherhood? Pickering said that the group's influence on Egyptian governance was certainly a question, but just one among many, many others for which we simply don't have an answer. Like so much else in the Middle East, it's too early to tell.

Over a period of time, if there is an organizational or leadership vacuum, I'd be surprised if they wouldn't move to fill that vacuum. They will have a role in elections, but we aren't sure just how much support they have from Egyptians. In the long run, they represent more piety, more religion and potentially more fundamentialism. Therefore, their role needs to be watched carefully even if we don't see it as a major threat now.