The Obama Administration should not have been caught by surprise by the Egyptian protests this week. But it was, and as I have written over at Shadow Government, the White House’s lack of anticipation and contingency planning marks a foreign policy failure. The Administration has been struggling to keep up ever since, and how they handle the still-unfolding events of the coming hours and days will do much to define President Obama’s legacy.
What has also been surprising is the relative silence of most leading Republicans thus far. Even allowing that the executive branch has primary responsibility for conducting the nation’s foreign policy, Republican leaders have an opportunity to help frame the debate, shape events in Egypt, and distinguish themselves and their ideas. In particular, prospective GOP presidential candidates and Congressional leaders should be making themselves heard this week.
The few conservative voices that have sounded thus far have focused mostly on concerns of a possible Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt, or in a related vein have lamented the potential loss of a reliable American ally in President Hosni Mubarak. While legitimate to a point, those concerns are also overstated, and risk overshadowing what is a real opportunity for American leadership that Republicans should embrace.
Mubarak is not “pro-American”; he is pro-Mubarak. For three decades his rule has focused on maintaining his own power. Doing so sometimes has converged with American interests – such as his tilt away from the Soviets in the Cold War, his support for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, or his periodic assistance in counter-terrorism. All of these are significant and demonstrate the value that his government has been as a regional US partner.
But Mubarak’s cooperation with the US extends only so far as he believes it to be useful to him. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger he has actually increased the strength and appeal of Egyptian Islamist movements by ruthlessly suppressing any secular, pro-Western democratic opposition voices; he has overseen the sometimes vicious persecution of Christians, both Copts and evangelicals; he has presided over a state media that produces slanderous anti-Semitism and anti-American conspiracism, and he has refused to implement the free market economic reforms needed to grow the stagnant economy and provide jobs to a generation of frustrated, despondent Egyptians. In short, the Mubarak regime is responsible for many of the problems that beset it, and has outlived its usefulness as an American partner.
Fortunately, even despite Mubarak’s misrule and repression of secular pro-Western reformers, the Muslim Brotherhood is only supported by a minority of Egyptians and has been a marginal player in the current protests. The vast majority of the protestors are not calling for Shari’a law, but rather desire for themselves the same things that America stands for – liberty, opportunity, and prosperity. Such as the ability to choose their own government, to think and speak freely, and to provide a better life for themselves and their families. Insofar as any of them express anti-American sentiments, these stem from their frustration that the Obama Administration has appeared to be on the side of their oppressive government rather than on the side of their freedom.
Moreover, as understandable as the protestors’ grievances are, the current disorder is very worrisome and threatens to spiral out of control. Far, far preferable would have been an orderly, gradual transition to democracy willingly overseen by Mubarak over the last several years. Instead he chose the baser path of tightened repression and sham elections, while the Obama Administration stayed largely silent and reduced its already meager support for Egyptian democracy advocates.
Now, for GOP leaders, Egypt presents an opportunity to advance American interests and values – by supporting the aspirations of Egypt’s freedom advocates. Should a new Egyptian government emerge soon, its leaders will remember if America supported their goals during their hour of need.
What should leading Republicans say?
- Encourage the Egyptian military to keep playing its positive role in preserving order and protecting citizens from harm – and warn the military not to turn and use force against the reformers;
- Express unequivocal American support for human rights, religious freedom, and democratic government in Egypt;
- Urge the Obama Administration to work publicly and privately for a transition to democracy in Egypt through an interim caretaker government and a commitment to free and fair elections soon.
Egypt is in the crucible, and the coming days will determine if the country descends into further chaos, violence, and even state collapse, or if order can be restored on a clear path to a democratic government. Republicans should do all they can to support the latter.