By Tobias Voss, Transatlantic Community Analyst
As the Egyptian protests enter their tenth day, , the urgent questions running through the corridors of power diplomacy in the Western capitals so far seem to have been not “What will happen next?” so much as “What do we do now?”
So swiftly have events moved in Egypt, that all the participants, protestors included, appear to have been caught off guard. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek’s stubborn refusal to follow the example of Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali into exile or grant any concessions beyond his stepping down at the end of his current term bespeak a ruler completely out of touch with his people. Although a faithful US ally for three decades in a country often seen to be at risk from extremists, such ardent displays of recalcitrant authoritarianism by the Mubarek regime cannot result in anything but embarrassment for its Western supporters.
The effect of this has been a struggle for balance on the part of the US and its allies between rhetoric and realpolitik, with condemnation of the Egyptian government’s repression and calls for peaceful transition weighing against fears of an Islamist takeover and the collapse of the peace with Israel.
As things stand, the transatlantic community is on the three pronged horns of a dilemma, born in no small part from the conflict between its supposed commitment to democratic ideals and the realities of its national interests. To support Mubarek after his refusal to concede to protestors’ demands would make a mockery of any future Western statements of support for democratic values and drop the US approval rating in the Middle East to unprecedented lows. To actively support the protestors, meanwhile, would cast doubt on NATO’s commitment to its allies in the region, who may well adopt ever more repressive measures to prevent revolution in their own countries. There is also a possibility that allies in the region will cut back on cooperation with the US in areas such as the prevention of terrorism. In the United States, there is little chance that this wouldn’t also create a backlash among conservatives eager to cast Obama as endangering US citizens by allowing groups hostile to US policies to take power via the ballot box.
To stay neutral is to implicitly concede the Atlantic community’s irrelevance to the Egyptian conflict and give the impression that the US and EU are disinclined to safeguard both its allies and democratic change. In what is described by some as the Arab World’s 1989 moment, this last stance risks leaving the Community trailing in the wake of history and adversely affecting its image of global relevance.
It is not clear which direction transatlantic nations will choose, but statements from Obama over the last 24 hours appear to point to an increasing willingness to side with the protestors over the regime. By declaring the violence in Cairo to be “outrageous and deplorable” yesterday, yet falling short of demanding Mubarek’s immediate resignation, the US President may very well be gearing up to publicly disassociate himself from the regime. A similar tone was apparently struck by British Prime Minister David Cameron when he strongly condemned what he called the “despicable scenes” of violence against the anti-Mubarek protestors, openly airing the possibility that the government may have sponsored some of the attacks and pushing for an “accelerated” program of political reform. Present with him in Downing Street was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who likewise condemned any attacks on peaceful protestors.
Perhaps a combination of scenarios would yield the best outcome for both the transatlantic community and the newly demonstrative Egyptian populace. While it is unthinkable that the West would intervene directly in the domestic affairs of Egypt, the transatlantic community is free to use diplomatic tactics to influence a possible new cadre of leaders to embrace the liberal ideology that that will benefit the long-term wellbeing of the country and provide the conditions protesters have been clamoring for. The United States has already reached out to opposition leader Mohmed ElBaradei, and transatlantic countries are likely to enter into talks with emerging opposition leaders in the near future. The transatlantic community understands that a government that actively responds to the people of Egypt will be the best thing for the people of Egypt and the world. We can only begin to trust that the new leaders of Egypt will understand that as well.