Change in Egypt? U.S. and EU Ready to Accept -- with Obama Appearing More Forward-Leaning (01/31)     Print Email

Caught off guard by the political explosion in Egypt, the U.S. and the EU have been cautious in taking a public stance as they seek to balance their commitment to promoting democratic politics and fears of fueling unpredictable change with unforeseeable consequences.


A week into the upheaval, Obama administration has adopted a more forward-leaning stance in favor of change in Egypt than major European governments and, even more so, the EU as a whole, which has been slow to react as a diplomatic entity. While Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has called for “an orderly transition” on Sunday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was confining her position to calling on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to enter into a dialogue with the opposition.

Finally on Monday the EU collectively called on the Egyptian authorities to begin an "orderly transition…paving the way for free and fair elections.”  In a statement issued after a previously scheduled meeting of EU foreign ministers, the European diplomatic position included a veiled warning against the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood that  is a strong political movement in Egypt. The EU statement called for an open dialogue in Egypt among all political forces – but only those ready to abide by democratic norms and with civil society.

This EU reaction reflects some deep-seated concerns about developments that many Europeans feel are happening in their backyard – and fears of Islamist contagion.   Some earlier free elections in Arab countries have been won by Islamic fundamentalists, whose determination to move away from secular government has alarmed the West (as in Gaza where Hamas won the Palestinian elections) or in Algeria in the 1990s when an electoral victory of Islamists spawned a civil war that shook North Africa and blew back into France as terrorist violence.

For Europe, the proximity to North Africa, the Arab and Muslim minorities in EU countries and the close trade and other ties across the Mediterranean make the EU very wary in reacting to the unpredictable events such as the overthrow of the government in Tunisia and now the surging tumult in Egypt. Such instability was exactly what was supposed to be prevented by the French-backed “Mediterranean Initiative” that has remained largely a dead letter.

The U.S. is largely unfettered by these considerations of historical and geographical closeness. On the main U.S. policy concerns – stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, the struggle against Arab terrorists, the security of Israel – the Obama administration seems vigilant but quietly reassured about the likely outcome in Egypt.  As a result, Washington has seemed readier than the EU and its member states to accept a major change in Egypt that will end the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

This difference, which is publicly only a nuance in largely similar transatlantic positions, can be traced in part to Washington’s largely behind-the-scenes dialogue with the Egyptian military, the group that will probably be decisive in shaping the outcome of events in the country.

The prevailing analysis in the U.S. government, which has not been spelled out publicly and can only be gleaned privately from sources that refuse attribution because of the issue’s sensitivity, is that the vast and unprecedented movement of popular protest in Egypt will not open the way to power for an extremist movement or a fundamentalist regime of the type long sought by the conspiratorial Muslim Brotherhood. This radical party is deeply rooted in parts of the Egyptian population and has inspired Islamic political action elsewhere (notably in Gaza, where the ruling Hamas party is led by Palestinian followers of the Brotherhood, and for the top leadership role some of their adherents, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, have assumed in Al Qaeda) But the Egyptian army, well organized and popular in the country, has reassured their U.S. counterparts that the military will prevent any Islamic takeover of the kind that occurred in Iran a generation ago.

“A salient aspect of the Egyptian protest movement is that it is completely devoid of any ideological l content in its demands and slogans and organization,” according to a specialist with access to U.S. official thinking.  Indeed, there has been a notable paucity of calls from the street against Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and also little sign of anti-Americanism as a cause for resentment or a theme for change under a new regime.

In this view, the political thrust of the opposition demonstrations – notably the replacement of the Mubarak regime with a “system offering freedom” – stems fundamentally from the economic frustrations in Egypt, notably in younger members of the middle class who are jobless themselves and see their country declining economically and thus losing its status as a regional leader.

The reason for this departure from the habitual rhetoric of Arab revolts seems to lie in a widespread realization among Egyptians that their problems center on their national poverty – a plight that can only be remedied by stronger economic aid in future. That aid can only come in significant amounts from the oil-rich Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and from the U.S. and European nations – which would be alienated by the arrival of a radical and potentially hostile regime in Egypt. Instead, Egyptians seem to be defying an oppressive regime in the hope of getting a “freer life” that is often equated to a “better life” materially. (This point has been emphasized in the reactions of people in east and central Europe comparing events in Egypt to their own anti-communist revolutions in 1989. “They want freedom and they want a better life – the same things we fought for,” wrote the Romanian daily, Adevarul.)

This economic dependence of Egypt goes along with an anti-fundamentalist view of Islamists shared by the secular majority of Egyptians with Algerians and Tunisians (and Libyans, too)  and also with the officially conservative governments of the oil-rich Arabian peninsula. Saudi Arabia and most other Arab governments are deeply opposed to any political outcome in Egypt that seems to bring that country closer to the radical politics (and anti-secular nature) of Iran’s government.

“The main political struggle today in the Arab world is a war for influence and power between Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims so most of these countries, which are Sunni like Egypt, are determined to resist and quash any radical change that seemed to favor the influence of Iran, the region’s only Shiite regime,” an Arab diplomat in Washington explained.

U.S. policy-makers have apparently been getting this message from the top echelon of the Egyptian armed forces, which have developed close ties with the Pentagon ever since the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. (The same Camp David accords stipulated that the U.S. will give Egypt $1.5 billion a year in military aid unless Cairo withdraws from the treaty.)

This U.S. intimacy with the Egyptian military – which have always been the arbiter of power in Egypt since independence and the 1952 revolution that brought Nasser to power – helps explain why the White House seems ready to accept change in Egypt and has even edged close to encouraging it.

The preference of U.S. policy-makers now, according to one well-placed adviser, “is to gain a little time in the situation so that the army can organize a transition without a bloody crackdown.”  The White House and the Pentagon are convinced that Mubarak will have to go, he said, because the Egyptian army has wanted him out for a long time and now have an opportunity not to be missed. The Egyptian army has apparently chafed at Mubarak’s desire to be succeeded by his son (who has now reportedly fled to London) and not by a former officer chosen by the military. (Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak himself came to power from the officer corps of the armed forces.

An initial White House preference was for Mubarak to “do an LBJ” – i.e. do what President Lyndon Baines Johnson did to defuse anti-Vietnam protests by promising that he would not run for re-election.  As the Egyptian crisis deepened ahead of Mubarak’s address to his country last week, Obama told aides that he expected Mubarak to offer a similar plan of remaining in office with some reforms until the Egyptian president elections scheduled for next September.

That timetable now seems to have been overtaken by events, and the Obama administration seems to have steadied its nerves behind its new message of the need for a change at the top in Cairo – and one in which Washington has no visible hand in influencing the outcome beyond pressing for peaceful change.

Similarly, European leaders have publicly stressed the need for the Egyptian regime to avoid bloodshed of the kind that enabled Tehran to put down the “Green Revolution” that threatened its power last year.

Several EU countries’ leaders clearly felt that they could not wait for the EU to develop a common position and so spoke out over the weekend, with both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling on Mubarak to embrace reforms.

“The Chancellor again insisted that the Egyptian security forces refrain from violence and that freedom of assembly and communication be allowed,” spokesperson Steffen Seibert said yesterday. Merkel has urged Mubarak to start a “dialogue” with the people, “especially with the youth,” in order to solve their “justifiable” concerns.

French leader Nicolas Sarkozy has sounded more direct, committing France to “ be on the side of Egyptians and Tunisians [who now have their own transitional government] in such a crucial period.”

In contrast, Clinton has sounded almost blunt in insisting on an Egyptian transition to “democracy.”  

The U.S. position stands in contrast to the more reserved consensus that emerged from the EU, when it finally reacted collectively to the Egyptian Crisis. After foreign ministers met Monday for a previously scheduled council, their statement shunned any specific mention of Mubarak or his future, advised Egypt to restore calm and assure that free and fair elections are held soon – without any specific mention of Mubarak or his future.