The United States needs Egypt. President Barack Obama and his national security team may harbor preferences about who represents the Egyptian people, but whoever emerges on top will be subjected to heavy American wooing. Until that person is anointed, however, the Obama administration is trying not to take sides and irk the eventual leader of a new Egypt.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East and, excepting Jordan and occasionally Turkey, the only state to maintain anything but frigid ties with Israel. (This is not necessarily a condition that would continue under a democratic Egypt, however, as 92 percent of Egyptians view Israel unfavorably.) Since becoming the first neighboring country to recognize Israel in a 1979 peace treaty, the U.S. has provided Egypt an average of $2 billion in aid annually. Of that aid, the bulk is military in nature. In the coming year, Egypt is slated to receive F-16 fighter jets, naval vessels, ground-to-air missiles and surveillance radar.
While no one knows what the Egyptian government will look like in the coming years, few doubt that the military will play a key role in either permitting it to take shape or actively molding it. It was with an eye towards appeasing the Egyptian military that U.S. officials recently reversed directions in condemning continued aid to Egypt. For instance, Sen. Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on foreign aid, last week asserted that, not only would he not vote in support of continuing aid, but no legislator who would. This week, in contrast, a spokesman for Leahy softened the senator's position, saying that he would oppose any new aid "until the situation is resolved."
In realpolitik, theoretical values like democracy and the rule of law have no place. The relatively malleable statements of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of late underscore this point. And they contrast sharply with President Obama's highest ideals for Egypt and other Middle East peoples as enumerated last fall.
"I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," President Obama declared in Cairo. "Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."
In recent weeks, unarmed protesters have been trampled by armored personnel carriers and thugs on camels, shot through with police bullets, and gassed with cannisters that read "Made in U.S.A.," all while the American-armed Egyptian military sits by idly. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues the flow of aid to the embattled Mubarak regime and pays lip service to the rights of everyday Egyptians by demanding "a peaceful, orderly transition to greater democracy." Could such a transition be accomplished with Mubarak-lacky Omar Suleiman retaining power? Would "greater democracy" be satisfied without full democracy? These are just two of the possibilities for which the administration's latest statements leave room. Both are contrary to the will of the Egyptian people and the high-minded rhetoric employed by the President just months ago.