The latest news out of Egypt is that the military will not use force against the protesters. Certainly, that’s good news for all parties. To the extent that the U.S. has been able to use its contacts with the Egyptian military to encourage this restraint, that’s a good result for the administration’s efforts, but this news is consistent with the direction that Mubarak already seemed to be going with his new cabinet. In light of the naming of Mubarak’s new cabinet, which includes Omar Suleiman, who is widely seen as the military’s preferred successor to Mubarak, it seems unlikely that the military is openly defying the regime by ruling out force against the protesters. Instead, it seems that the military is providing a buffer between Mubarak and the protesters. Using the military as both a security and political shield to deflect the anger of the protesters, Mubarak seems to think he can ride out the storm. As Ashraf Khalil explains:
These new appointments are proof that Mubarak is well aware of the respect enjoyed by his armed forces. By stacking his new team with distinguished military figures, he’s hoping that their reputation can paper over his own tattered legitimacy.
If Mubarak is trying to hide behind the military’s good reputation, it makes sense that he would have the military take a relatively non-confrontational approach to the protesters. Instead of destroying the military’s reputation with a bloody crackdown, Mubarak wants to exploit that reputation and try to wait out the opposition. As Blake Hounshell notes, the new cabinet will actually be even less interested in reform than the outgoing one:
In fact, the reformers — Ahmed Nazif, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Youssef Boutros-Ghali — won’t be in the new government. Although Al Arabiya reported that the latter two ministers refused to join, it’s also possible that Mubarak wanted to send a signal that he blamed their economic liberalization policies for stirring up unrest.
All of this is worth taking into account when discussing what the U.S. should or should not do in the coming weeks. Prof. Walt has offered a realist argument for pushing for democratic elections. I agree that “domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one’s allies,” but I am not sure that “this is one of those fortunate moments when the United States does not face a clear tradeoff between its moral sympathies and its strategic imperatives.” If it were one of those fortunate moments, we would be seeing a very straightforward stance of support for the protesters as we saw in Tunisia. Tunisia was one of those “fortunate moments.” Virtually no one in the U.S. noticed it until it had already happened. As everyone keeps saying, Egypt is not Tunisia, because there is not the same luxury of endorsing the end of the regime without some significant consequences. The U.S. is stuck in the position that France would have been stuck in had Ben Ali not fled to Saudi Arabia: a major patron state supporting the “modernizing” autocrat as the least-bad of the available options and implicated in the existing regime.
Prof. Walt’s argument doesn’t persuade me. For example, he writes:
In other words, our support for Mubarak was directly linked to the “special relationship” with Israel, and the supposedly “strategic interest” involved was largely derivative of the U.S. commitment to support Israel at all costs. For those of us who think that the “special relationship” is bad for the U.S. and Israel alike, therefore, a change of government in Egypt is not alarming.
As someone who agrees with Prof. Walt that the current U.S.-Israeli relationship is unbalanced, dysfunctional, and bad for both parties, I might agree that a change of government in Egypt would not be alarming if that relationship were significantly different from what it is today. However, the “special relationship” still exists, and it isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, so the U.S. will have to cope with the effects of Egyptian political change on Israel, and the U.S. will be implicated in Israeli actions in response to the new Egyptian government. If the U.S. could rearrange all of our other relations in the region to make the impact of Egyptian regime change on U.S. policies minimal, this would indeed be a “fortunate moment,” but there is no question of that kind of realignment happening in the short space of time necessary to make Egyptian regime change anything other than troubling. The “special relationship” with Israel becomes more of a liability for the U.S. if Mubarak goes, which becomes another argument for changing the relationship, but that isn’t actually an argument for the U.S. to support Mubarak’s departure or help usher in a democratic Egyptian government.
It isn’t hard to imagine how a change in Egypt’s regime would politically strengthen advocates for the current U.S.-Israeli relationship. As Egypt goes from “cold peace” to something less friendly, “pro-Israel” hawks in the U.S. will go into overdrive demanding that the U.S. become even more supportive and uncritical in relations with Israel. It doesn’t matter politically that this will actually be harmful to the U.S. Recent disputes between Turkey and Israel should have made it obvious that U.S. strategic interests favored supporting Turkey more than the U.S. has been, but the opposite has occurred. U.S.-Turkish relations have soured, and criticism of Israeli policies has become more muted, because Turkey became a target of vilification on account of its clashes with Israel. The siege rhetoric Israeli and “pro-Israel” hawks have used for decades may become a little bit more credible with a less friendly Egypt on its doorstep, and this and future administrations will have even less room to criticize and pressure Israel. A lot of this will be the usual over-hyping of threats and hyperbolic language that we have heard for a long time, but there could be just enough truth in it to make it harder to change the relationship with Israel in a constructive way.
It is easy to see how reduced Egyptian pressure on Gaza and a steady supply of arms into Gaza from Hamas’ ideological confreres could create conditions that an Israeli government would use to justify an unwise, excessive military action against Gaza and targets in Egypt. Everyone seems to be banking on continued peace between Egypt and Israel, as if Egypt were the only state that could launch a military action. As long as the Egyptian government is more or less in its current form, whether under Mubarak or Suleiman, that probably heads off a broader international crisis sparked by any renewed fighting in Gaza. If a new Egyptian government that is much more sympathetic or openly supportive of Hamas comes to power, and if members of the Muslim Brotherhood actively aid Hamas, an Israeli government might believe that it has to launch a “preventive” war to strike at Hamas’ supporters. Put another way, does Prof. Walt have confidence that either a Likud or Kadima-led Israeli government would not order military strikes against targets inside Egypt if it believed it was “defending itself” against Hamas in the process? We have heard endlessly since the fall of Hariri’s government that Israel would have justification to target all of Lebanon now that a Hizbullah-backed government is in power there. What would make Egypt’s democratic government more secure against such a fate, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood belonged to or even ran the government?
Invoking democratic elections is the standard answer that everyone now gives as the way to resolve the crisis in Egypt, and Prof. Walt is arguing for the same thing, but what if it really is the wrong answer? If these elections empower the opposition united behind ElBaradei, they would also empower his allies in the Brotherhood, for which ElBaradei has been making excuses since he arrived on the scene.
Walt also argues that a new Egyptian government wouldn’t be focused on changing Egyptian foreign policy:
Although ordinary Egyptians do feel strong sympathy for the Palestinians, the primary concern of those now marching in the streets is domestic affairs, not foreign policy.
True enough. Likewise, the people marching in Tbilisi were outraged by corruption and electoral fraud more than they were concerned about South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but Georgia’s experience since 2003 has been overwhelmingly defined (and not for the better) by Saakashvili’s foreign policy preoccupations with the separatist republics and integration into NATO. To take a different and less dramatic example, the DPJ in Japan came to power largely because of strong anti-incumbency sentiment, economic anxieties, and disgust with official corruption, but practically the first thing Hatoyama did after winning election was to try to re-open negotiations over the Okinawa basing agreement. Practically everyone said that the DPJ would not make its foreign policy adjustments a priority, and that was incorrect. The row with the U.S. caused Hatoyama to resign, so this decision was not without its price, but American observers significantly underestimated the extent to which Okinawa basing mattered to the new government and its supporters. So we have recently seen two examples of new, untested democratic leaders making controversial or disastrous forays into foreign policy when it might have made more sense to focus solely on domestic issues.
What the protesters in the streets want or don’t want may not matter when it comes to a new government setting foreign policy. This is not only because foreign policy is not as directly affected by popular opinion as other policies, but because the opposition leaders do have very strong disagreements with Mubarak’s foreign policy. Many Western observers overstated the impact of a successful Green movement on Iranian foreign policy, not understanding that they shared many of the same priorities as the government, and it seems to me that many people are making the opposite mistake now by underestimating the degree of change in policy that a new government will introduce. One thing that suggests that there may be more continuity in foreign policy than I am considering here is the likely survival of military and intelligence institutions in any new system, but that assumes that the new government is going to be willing to tolerate a large role for these institutions in setting policy.