Egypt the Day After

The Obama administration, and the rest of the world, must get used to the idea that there is a new Egypt and a new Middle East. The old order that was so comforting to Washington is over.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The Obama administration, and the rest of the world, must get used to the idea that there is a new Egypt and a new Middle East. The old order that was so comforting to Washington -- based on authoritarian regimes ruling over docile populations -- is over. The Arab world is undergoing a major transformation of power to the people. The outcome will be for the better. Egypt will move forward, not backward. Democratization in the largest Arab nation will have a tremendous positive influence on the entire region.

The collapse of the old order has come suddenly. It is imperative that Obama move with equal speed to accept and embrace the change. If he does so, he may be able to help influence the creation of a new order. If he does not, he will engender more anti-American bitterness that will imperil America's relations with a democratic Arab world. Imagining that things can go back to the way they were is dangerous wishful thinking. The President should sack any advisor who is still presenting policy options with that paradigm.

Since the mid-January Tunisian uprising that preceded Egypt's Revolt on the Nile, Obama has found it difficult to let go of the longstanding strategic relationship that based ties solely on security partnerships rather than respect for popular political aspirations. When the Jasmine Revolt was in full swing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a pan-Arab audience on the Al Arabiya channel, "We are not taking sides." Three days later, one of the "sides," President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country.

On the day the Egyptian protests got underway, Vice President Joe Biden showed the U.S.'s continuing inability to grasp what was happening. When Jim Lehrer asked Biden on PBS NewsHour whether Mubarak was a dictator, the Vice President revealed that the Beltway mindset was unchanging: "Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible relative to geopolitical interests in the the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel... I would not refer to him as a dictator."

As for the protesters, Biden called them Egyptians looking for "a little more access" and "a little more opportunity." Of course, the overwhelming demand of the protesters was and remained the total removal of Mubarak's regime. Biden, even with his experience as a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could not wrap his mind around the possibility that Egypt could be witnessing the fall of an Arab Berlin Wall. "I think it's a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe," he said -- also acknowledging, to his credit, "But I could be proven wrong."

Well, it only took a few days, but now he has been. The Obama administration must accept that even if it tried, nothing can save the old order now. U.S. policy must be immediately revised to take into account of the coming political dispensation. It must respect the will of the Egyptians and reach out to all leaders and parties that represent constituencies in the country. That includes first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization, but nonetheless one of the oldest and most durable in Egyptian politics.

Obama's hesitancy to embrace Egypt's freedom movement -- and the near-hysteria of some American "experts" -- reflects fears that Egypt is in the midst of an Islamic revolution. Eight U.S. administrations supported military-backed regimes in Egypt in the name of regional stability and notably preserving the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. There is zero chance that change in Egypt will bring an Iran-style fundamentalist regime to power. The army is not riddled with fundamentalism, is widely respected by the people, and will remain a hugely stabilizing force in Egyptian politics and society. The way ordinary Egyptians moved to protect their neighborhoods and clean up the streets after the outbreak of rioting underscored the country's rejection of instability. A representative government in Egypt will certainly introduce policy changes, but they will not be radical changes.

That is because Egyptians are not radical, and they have rejected radicalism. The Brotherhood has an Islamic program, but it supports a civil state based on Egyptian citizenship. It has long demonstrated a readiness to cooperate with other Egyptian parties, including secular and nationalist parties like the Wafd. It quickly announced its readiness to have Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed ElBaradei, a staunch secularist, to negotiate on behalf of the opposition. Egyptians are attached to Islam but by no means does the Brotherhood enjoy their overwhelming support. Credible estimates put the group's support at 20-25 percent or so.

Egyptians are and will stay focused on their own country. There has been no notable anti-American sentiment in the demonstrations, despite the fact that the U.S. embassy in Cairo stands a block from Tahrir Square. Polls consistently show that Egyptians, like Arabs generally, are favorably inclined toward American democracy, education, technology, films, television, and consumer products. Nor has there been any sign of anti-Israel anger. If Israel is concerned about its peace agreement with Egypt, then it should consider doing a much better job of showing Egyptians that it is serious about peace -- for example, by stopping illegal settlements in the West Bank that have helped lead to the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

It's not only the Obama administration that is having a hard time adjusting to the new reality in the Middle East. America's foreign policy establishment, in the form of the think tanks, experts on international relations and pundits who write about the Middle East, are losing their security blanket, too. One glaring example is Leslie Gelb, in a Daily Beast piece titled "Beware Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood," "Let's stop prancing around and proclaiming our devotion to peace, 'universal rights' and people power," says Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, belittling support for the Arab freedom movement. He adds, "My guess is no one really knows a great deal about the protesters" -- well, certainly not pundits who rarely have spoken with ordinary Egyptians or the protesters. "Just look at Iran," Gelb glibly concludes.

On the "day after," there will be no "Iran" in Egypt. The Shah's security forces brutally repressed and helped radicalize Iran's revolution. As Egypt's military command has already announced, that will not happen in Egypt. Egypt's revolt is bringing about a new and better Egypt, with the military and the people together.

Scott MacLeod, Time's Middle East correspondent from 1995 to 2010, is managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a professor at the American University in Cairo.

Popular in the Community