Does the New Dawn in Egypt Require a New Framework for U.S.-Middle East Relations?

Co-authored by Sheila B. Lalwani

The toppling of the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak and new dawn in Egypt strikes fear of uncertain change in the region in the hearts of many rulers. It has inspired protests in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Syria and Yemen; the creation of a political party in Saudi Arabia; and concerns in Iran's Islamic Republic, which was so shaken by the Green Movement in its last presidential elections.

The end of the Mubarak regime demonstrates the falsity of commonly held stereotypes: Arabs reject democracy, Islam is incompatible with popular sovereignty, the grip of rulers of security states is unshakeable. Pro-democracy protesters were driven by longstanding political and economic grievances: the lack of democracy, a growing gap between a rich minority and the middle class and poor, rampant corruption, rising food prices, high unemployment levels, lack of opportunity and a sense of a future for young people. Egyptians reclaimed their dignity and control of their lives, demanding an end to widespread corruption as well as government accountability and transparency, rule of law, human rights and the right to determine the government and destiny of Egypt.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have revealed a broad-based, pro-democracy movement that is not driven by a single ideology or by religious extremists. What has occurred is not an attempt at an Islamist takeover, but a broad-based call. As their signs, placards, statements and demands demonstrate protesters want Egyptian unity, speak of one Egypt and sing the Egyptian national anthem; they wave Egyptian flags, not Islamist placards. People from every walk of life, professionals and laborers, were united in a common cause.

Surprising? Not really. The Gallup World Poll of more than 35 Muslim majority countries, representing the voices of a billion Muslims, had reported that in Egypt and in most Muslim countries, majorities surveyed wanted greater democratization, freedoms and the rule of law. That said, regrettably, the U.S. and many European countries continued long-standing policies to support authoritarian regimes, security states. Despite America's claim to promote democracy and human rights as the Bush administration acknowledged, America (under all recent presidents) has had a legacy of "democratic exceptionalism," what many have seen as a "double standard," supposed American promotion of democracy globally, but support for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world. This policy, while attractive to authoritarian allies and their entrenched elites, fed anti-Americanism and fears of Western intervention, invasion, occupation and dependency.

The Way Forward

Washington has monitored the situation in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen closely. In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of Egypt and did so again during the Super Bowl with Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. President Obama has reiterated his support for the people of Egypt, but those words must be backed up with clear actions.

We live in a changing multi-polar world that requires, as President Obama has acknowledged consistently from early in his administration, mutual respect and cooperation. The challenge for American and European policymakers will be to move beyond equating protection of national interests with the stability and security of regimes, beyond fear of the unknown, of a process whose outcome it cannot control, to a policy based on American principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights.

A new framework based on working with democratically elected governments in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region does risk a less predictable future, working with more independent governments with their own vision of their national interests. As we do with many other countries, allies and non-allies, around the world, our relations will be based on national interests and common strategic political, economic and military interests. In contrast to the past, the US should place primary emphasis on investment in Egyptian educational, economic and technological rather than military assistance, working particularly with independent NGOs. Our efforts should be self-consciously multi-lateral, bringing an end, as President Obama has emphasized to American unilateralism.

However, multilaterialism also means American partnerships in economic development in Egypt with wealthy Egyptian businessmen, who need to invest more in their own economy, as well as Arab oil countries and companies, rather than simply American initiatives that put up the risk capital. We need to acknowledge that there is a new narrative in the Middle East. Critical as the Egyptian people move forward will be that same sense of national unity in building a democratic, pluralistic, multi-party political system that represents the diversity of Egyptian society. This will also be important to assure that the future of Egypt is not hijacked by the military. While the military has promised to oversee the transition to democracy, many in the senior military have entrenched interests of power and privilege, business interests, and a culture of military rule: all of the leaders of modern Egypt have been ex-military Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. They have risen up through the ranks due to their loyalty as well as talents. On the other hand, if the pro-democracy movement, however diverse, can remain united in its pressure for democratization and the U.S. and Europe can play a strong constructive role; especially with economic, technological, educational rather than military aid and especially support independent NGOs and other civil society organizations, that can make a big difference. But what about the danger of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover?

It's time to look at the empirical evidence. Since the late 20th century, far from being advocates of religious extremism, the Muslim Brotherhood, like other Islamically-oriented candidates and political parties in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have opted for ballots, not bullets. Among the Brotherhood's most vigorous critics (and enemies) have been Egyptian militants, including al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiry. For decades the Muslim Brotherhood, though officially illegal, has proven to be the largest and most effective non-violent opposition movement, politically and socially within mainstream Egyptian society. In contrast to radical extremist Egyptian organization, the Brotherhood has competed and done well in elections, despite constant government harassment, including imprisonment and detention without charge or conviction. And it has remained nonviolent. On the other hand, the Mubarak government had a decades-long track record of repression, rigged elections, and used violence by government goons to intimidate and harass all secular and Islamist opposition. It controlled the creation of and regulated non-government civil society organizations and the media, and used military tribunals to circumvent Egypt's independent-minded courts.

But what about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in this period of political change and in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

The Brotherhood will no doubt continue to have an influential role; however, in a new, more open and pluralistic political climate, they will be one of many potential political players and parties. The Muslim Brotherhood, like Tunisia's Ennahada and many other Islamist parties in the past elections, absent other political choices, were the only game in town. They garnered the votes not only of their members and supporters but also of those who wanted to express their opposition or disfavor with the government. The Brotherhood neither initiated nor led Egypt's protest movement. Many experts believe their core of support would come from about 25 percent of the population at best. In free and fair elections with a multi-party system, they would certainly be important but not necessarily a dominant factor. And indeed, Muslim Brothers like all other Egyptians have a right to participate in elections and be represented in government. Moreover, the Brotherhood has indicated that it will not run a candidate for president nor seek cabinet positions in the upcoming election.

The Egyptian people, like the Tunisians, have every reason to celebrate their triumph and enjoy a sense of empowerment, and the U.S. has every reason to pick up the gauntlet that the new transfer of power in Egypt and Tunisia and the continued process of political transformation in the Middle East presents. Barack Obama went to Cairo early in his presidency and affirmed his "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. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere." When it comes to dealing with pro-democracy forces, let's walk the way we have talked.

In the political transition that follows, emerging governments and reformers in Tunisia and Egypt will be challenged to form a national unity government, to demonstrate commitment to political liberalization, civil society and human rights by fostering the development of those civil institutions and values that support democratization. The litmus test will be the extent to which their policies and actions reflect an acceptance of basic democratic freedoms, diversity of opinion, multiple political parties and civil society organizations, as well as an appreciation for the concept of a "loyal opposition" rather than viewing alternative voices and political visions as a threat to the political system.