Democracy in Egypt: The U.S. and Israel Can Adapt and They Will

02/02/2011 09:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democracy is coming to Egypt. People outside of Egypt who consider that inconvenient to their current policies may kvetch, but ultimately they can adapt and they will, because as it becomes increasingly obvious that democratic change is a fait accompli, adaptation will appear superior to any conceivable alternative.

Under a democratically-elected government, Egypt's relationship to the U.S. and Israel is likely to change. But there is no reason to expect that the change will necessarily be cataclysmic, if the U.S. helps force Mubarak out and there is an orderly transition, unless your definition of "cataclysmic" is "any significant deviation from the status quo."

As always, but especially now, it's important to drill down into broad claims about the "interests" of particular actors. Whether you consider that a democratic Egypt will be "good" or "bad" for U.S. or Israeli "interests" depends on how narrow-minded and inflexible your conception of U.S. and Israeli "interests" is.

Egypt's foreign policy under a democratically-elected government is likely to look in broad terms a lot like Turkey's foreign policy under a democratically-elected government: Egypt is likely to maintain good relations with the West, but to be more independent on issues where current U.S. policy is perceived to be extreme. But that won't necessarily lead to conflict with the U.S., because the U.S. will have the option of accommodating the Egyptian shift, an option that the U.S. is likely to take advantage of, because it will have no better alternative.

If you don't think that U.S. policy can move when it is compelled to do so, review a timeline of U.S. government statements about the situation in Egypt over the course of the last seven days. Of course, the Israeli government is just as capable of moving in the presence of compulsion as the U.S. is. In the case of both governments, the historical pattern is: reform appears impossible until it appears absolutely necessary, at which point it appears trivial.

We have many reasons to expect this direction of movement. A transition to democracy in Egypt -- a process that is likely to take some time -- is likely to be led, formally or informally, by a coalition between opposition parties and the military. The presence of the military -- which has close ties to the United States -- as a formal or informal member of the coalition, in addition to the preoccupation of a transition government with preparing for free and fair elections and running the country, will moderate any potentially extreme demands. Furthermore, opposition parties -- especially the Muslim Brotherhood -- have sent clear signals that they are not seeking confrontation with the United States, and that their top priority is establishing democracy.

There is a strong tendency in Washington to exaggerate the potential negative impacts for the U.S. of any possible decrease in the perceived power of the U.S. in other people's countries. If some country decides it doesn't want to have a U.S. military base anymore, that's the biggest potential disaster in human history, right up until the point when it becomes clear that the base cannot be saved, at which point the U.S. description of the situation is miraculously transformed into: "no big deal, we didn't need that base anyway." Life goes on.

Opposing policies of the U.S. and Israel is not likely to be the top priority of a democratically-elected government in Egypt, whose top priorities will be domestic political and economic reform. But neither are the majority of Egyptians likely to accept the notion that their democratically-elected government has no independent voice and influence in regional affairs. Claims that the Israel/Palestine issue, or the issue of Iran's nuclear program, are a U.S.-owned "sandbox" in which countries with different views will not be allowed to play, will simply not be sustainable, and as that becomes increasingly obvious, the U.S. will accept it, take advantage of it, and take credit for it, focusing its efforts on areas where there is broad agreement and explaining to everyone who will listen that sandbox diversity was always a priority of U.S. policy.

Three aspects of Egyptian government support for current U.S.-Israeli policy which are unpopular in Egypt are likely to fall under a democratically-elected government, and perhaps even under a transitional coalition government that includes the military and the opposition: Egyptian support for the economic blockade of Gaza; Egyptian support for the diplomatic isolation of Hamas and the Fatah-Hamas split; and Egyptian support for aggressive confrontation with Iran.

Egyptian support for the Camp David treaty with Israel is likely to continue; provisions of the treaty that envision an Egyptian role in securing Palestinian rights - the treaty, for example, called forIsraeli military withdrawal from the West Bank - may receive new life. Egyptian support for the blocking the flow of weapons across the Gaza border is likely to continue.

Would these developments be a cataclysm? From the point of view of the broad interests of humanity, they would be an advance. From the point of view of current U.S. and Israeli policy, they would be a setback. But they would not be a cataclysm. Turkey pursues a moderately independent foreign policy today, supporting the U.S. on many issues but opposing the U.S. sometimes, and yet we live and breathe; life goes on.

Egypt is not Turkey; it has a border with Gaza, and it is an Arab country; it is not just any Arab country, but was traditionally a heavyweight in Arab affairs; Egypt's influence will increase when it has a democratic government and begins to speak independently, just as Turkey's has. In addition, a democratic Egypt is likely to collaborate with Turkey in pursuing an independent policy, making it more difficult to marginalize either one.

But the U.S. and Israel will not collapse if the economic blockade on Gaza is lifted; the U.S. and Israel will not collapse if the diplomatic isolation of Hamas is ended; the U.S. and Israel will not collapse if the Palestinians are allowed to unite; and the U.S. and Israel will not collapse if we have to give up on the insane idea of a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran.

If you take a far-sighted view of U.S. and Israeli interests: a durable peace in the region - one about which a majority of Palestinian and Arab opinion will be able to say: "we can accept this as approximately just" - and a consensual approach to the resolution of regional conflicts, then a democratic Egypt will be in the interests of the U.S. and Israel. When Israel has a positive relationship with a democratic Egypt, that's going to be much more stable than the positive relationship that Israel had with Mubarak. The Israeli government will likely have to make concessions to maintain a positive relationship with a democratic Egypt; but the Israeli government will eventually have to make those concessions anyway, so it might as well get a positive relationship with a democratic Egypt in exchange for its trouble.

The emergence of Egypt as an independent, democratic actor will reduce the likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran, because a democratic Egypt is likely to oppose that, and an independent, democratic Egypt will have more weight in international affairs.

But the emergence of Egypt as an independent, democratic actor will also diminish the likelihood of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, or taking other extreme, unilateral measures that threaten the interests of others in the region, for exactly the same reason: a democratic and independent Egypt will have more influence. When an independent, democratic Egypt says that Iran should cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, that's going to have more weight, because a democratic and independent Egypt won't be perceived as a mere cat's paw of the U.S.

The emergence of a democratic and independent Egypt will expose the fact that influence in the region isn't a zero-sum game between Washington and Tehran, because there are other actors, who have distinct interests. And that will be positive.

The likely Egyptian shift will be in U.S. and Israeli interests in the same sense that it is in your interests if someone takes your car keys when you are drunk. The current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and in U.S. negotiations with Iran, is substantially caused by the inability of the U.S. and Israeli governments to move as a result of domestic political constraints. But for domestic political constraints, the U.S. would likely take a firm line against Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But for domestic political constraints, the U.S. would likely agree to the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil, in exchange for Iran's agreement to fully cooperate with intrusive IAEA inspections.

A shift in Egyptian government policy will provide a convenient excuse for U.S. and Israeli policy to shift. "Of course, we would love to be intransigent," the U.S. and Israeli governments will be able to say to the domestic supporters of intransigence, "but we must accommodate the new reality."