Complicating the transition in US-Egyptian relations

 This piece was originally published at the Middle East Channel

Beyond the immediate dilemmas – how and how hard to push Mubarak to stand down, what to say in public versus in private, and how best to pressure the US-backed Egyptian security forces – the transition period that lies ahead for Egypt will hold its own complicating factors for Washington policymakers.

First, it needs to be remembered that this is not primarily about the US (nor should it be), this is about Egyptians empowering themselves. Nevertheless, the US and other international actors will have a role to play and will have to chart a new policy course for relations with Egypt, and this will in no small measure set a trend for the region as a whole.

One minor luxury that the administration should have is that there are not significant or obviously apparent domestic political pressures being brought to bear on this issue. Both parties, Democrat and Republican, have made nice with dictators in the Arab world while paying limited lip service to democracy. There is no victory lap, freedom coupon to clip as was the case in the former Soviet bloc, there is no Arab democracy political lobby, even if the Arab American community will be largely thrilled by what is happening in the region. The one exception to this is the role that some traditional pro-Israel groups may play in urging a go-slow conservatism to a US embrace of change in the Middle East.

The lack of enthusiasm on the part of some of the pro-Israel community is an understandable if regrettable phenomenon. Israel is a strong status quo power in the region and Israel’s establishment considers the rule of Western-oriented dictators (especially those with strong ties to U.S. aid and the U.S. military) to have served Israel’s interests. President Mubarak has been a key facilitator of Israel’s agenda in the region – partly due to his support for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty but primarily centered around his maintenance of a  “go-nowhere” peace process which helps shield Israel from international criticism while giving Egypt the appearance of being a useful ally to the U.S..

In recent years, this alliance has extended beyond preventing pressure on Israel and grown to include support for Israel’s closure of Gaza (Egypt followed suit on its own border with Gaza), helping besiege Hamas, and playing host to the occasional peace gala in order to maintain the fiction that all of this “peace processing” might lead somewhere.