Foreign Policy

Let Your People Go

Egypt's still screwed up. Should the United States take an interest in the outcome?


Remember when America had a real president?

We all know President Barack Obama has covered himself and his country in shame with his reaction to the Egypt crisis. But which variety of shame are we talking about?

Did Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignore the festering discontent in the Arab street, or did they too quickly pull the rug out from under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a valued (and concomitantly expensive) American ally? Did the administration cynically discount the longing for freedom in every breast or did it get swept up by a naïve vogue for democracy in a region that has been allergic to democracy since the dawn of history? Should we condemn Obama for his appalling moral equivalency between peaceful demonstrators and government goons or for throwing in with a mob whose triumph will almost certainly end up jeopardizing Israel's security

This potluck vituperation reached its zenith earlier this week with a celebrated Haaretz essay by Aluf Benn declaring that Obama "will go down in history as the president who lost Egypt." For good measure, Benn threw in Tunisia, Turkey, and the entire Middle East. Laced with tasty innuendo ("His message to Muslims was 'I am one of you'"), Benn's piece charges Obama with shying away from the blunt pro-freedom language of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, with abandoning friendly dictators in trouble, and also with sitting on the fence. The funny thing is that it's all true.

Can't two presidents do better than those cheap ballpoint pens?

This is the problem with viewing every event in every country as a reflection of American policy. The pan-Arab convulsions that began in Tunisia last month have to be considered as a group, but each has its own set of circumstances. The Sunnis who were burning up the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon less than two weeks ago were protesting a power grab by Hezbollah. Earlier this week Hamas police were sufficiently threatened by a group of women demonstrating in Gaza that they cracked down on the demonstration. Protesters in Jordan were angered not so much by the plight of the country's poor as by a threat to its elite. In the unlikely event a Syria protest emerges, it will be against a mush-mouthed hereditary president who has been instituting phantom reforms for more than a decade while the economy and the culture have stagnated. Tunisians and Egyptians rebelled against calcified presidents for life. Who knows what the hell Yemenis are mad about?

The seesaw battle in Cairo demonstrates the danger of seeking to promote a better world through foreign policy. It's difficult enough to do diplomacy at its proper, potentate-to-potentate level. Seeking to advance great principles and guide morality among foreign populations is asking for trouble. What appears to be clear at a distance inevitably comes apart as you get closer to it.

Consider the economic discontent said to be at the base of the Egyptian uprising. Everybody seems to agree that putative free-market reforms helped bring on the troubles, but did they do so by lowering living standards or by raising them? (Marxist revolutionary theory to the contrary, political unrest has historically occurred most frequently when relative economic conditions are improving.) In an excellent contrarian narrative of the uprising, an Egyptian student who gives his name as Sam Tadros posits that good times enabled the revolution:

Gamal [Mubarak, Hosni's son and until recently heir apparent] step by step started rising inside the ruling NDP party. With him he brought two groups to the ruling coalition. First were the Western educated economic technocrats trained in international financial institutions they shared what is generally described as neo-liberal economic policies labeled the Washington Consensus. Secondly was the growing business community that was emerging in Egypt. Together they started the process of both restructuring the Egyptian economy and the ruling party.

For the technocrats it was the fiscal and economic policy that was their domain and they performed miracles. The Egyptian economy under the Nazif government showed unprecedented growth. The currency was devalued, investment was pouring in, and exports were growing. Even the economic crisis did not dramatically effect Egypt. The real disaster in all of this however is that no one actually rationalized or defended those policies to the Egyptian public. The country was moving towards a full capitalist system but no explained why that was needed or why it was ultimately beneficial. While such restructuring is naturally painful for a population that was dependent on the government for all its needs, the people were fed the same socialist rhetoric nonetheless. It mattered very little that the country was improving economically, people did not see that. It is not that the effects were not trickling down, they were. It is that the people were used to the nanny state for so many years that they could not understand why the government was no longer providing them with those services.

Counterculture McGoverniks!

Al Jazeera's Hugh Macleod, on the other hand, brings in some anti-market commentators to set Mubarak off against another dictator, arguing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is secure, among other reasons, because he has done a better job of managing the country's economy:

"Egypt and Tunisia applied the free market principles, but Syria has not. The government still controls the strategic keys to the economy," said [Souria al-Ghad editor Mazen] Bilal. "It's even opening up new jobs in the public sector to absorb more workers."

Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said five years of reforms had increased incomes above the increase in inflation, with the relative spending power of the poor growing faster than the rich.

One in 10 Syrians live in poverty—but this figure is far below Egypt's rate of some 40 per cent. Official figures in Syria show unemployment fell from over 12 per cent in 2005 to 8.1 per cent in 2009, one per cent lower than the official rate in Egypt, where some analysts put it as high as 25 per cent. Average salaries in Syria have risen to $200 over the past few years, more than double the rate in Egypt.

There is some left-wing claptrap in there. An economic minister in a dictatorship is not an unbiased source on the success of a five-year plan, and however you want to draw the "poverty line," Egypt's per capita GDP is more than a third higher than Syria's. But Syria is a textbook example of a regime that maintains stability through enforced hopelessness.

While McLeod says that Assad's opposition to American and Israeli plans has helped him win over public opinion, there is no reason to believe public opinion is any different than it was decades ago: Given a chance, the people would rip the brutal, apostate Assad family to shreds. They are kept in line only by an iron security state and a frozen economy. Mubarak's counterattack on Wednesday suggests he has taken that example to heart. Even in the most vicious dictatorship, no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy is always an option.

Nothing will come between us if you just hold, hold my hand.

There is no ideologically satisfying choice for the United States here. Were Mubarak to flee the country immediately (an outcome that looks less likely by the minute) it's pretty clear the next stage would not be for Egypt to become the Czech Republic. If he stays in power until September that means recalled California Gov. Gray Davis (who had to clear out his office the day of the election) would go down in history as a more toxic leader than Hosni Mubarak. Within the last day, the Obama Administration appears to have screwed up its hand again. By calling for Mubarak to move on, and by being ignored, Obama has provided another demonstration of American powerlessness.

For hawks who stay up all night worrying that somebody somewhere might be doubting America's machismo, that's a problem. For everybody else, it's nothing to worry about. It is up to Egyptians, not Americans, to decide what country they want. The history of American support for the regime—and for that matter the history of American meddling in the region and support for a variety of dictators—does not change that essential fact. I and many other Americans would like to see an immediate heave-ho given to the vile Mubarak (though in response to all the commentary about Mubarak's sickly and toad-like appearance, I must say he looks damn well for an 82-year-old). But that's a preference, not a foreign policy, which by its nature is about states, not people. The United States government, which recently re-opened its embassy in Syria, has to deal with other governments as they present themselves.

Departing from decades of sound foreign policy, the radical, secret Muslim Bill Ayers protege Barack Obama shakes hands with a dictator.

Obama can take heart in knowing that the argument between realists and visionaries is as old as the republic. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson tangled over how to respond to the French Revolution, with Jefferson seeing it as a continuation of the American struggle for liberty and Adams worrying about international stability. In light of the horrors the revolution ended up visiting on Europe, you'd have to say Adams was right, but for American interests alone, the revolution was a clear winner. Within a few years Napoleon, faced with massive economic and foreign policy challenges of his own, decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States at a fire-sale price. In foreign policy as in Hollywood, nobody knows anything.

However things shake out in Egypt, the United States will have a new situation and a new government to react to, one that we didn't create or stage-manage. That's not unreasonable; it's the same thing everybody else has to do with the United States every four years.

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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  1. That picture is just begging for an alt/text contest….

    1. “I will not buy this record; it is scratched”.

  2. Did Mubarak think up the camel charge?

  3. obama lost (past tense) egypt? got the lottery numbers too?

  4. Obama should appoint McCain as special envoy. He understands how an embittered old autocrat deals with defeat.

    1. Old. Check.
      Embittered. Mmmh … for the sake of argument, check.
      Autocrat? What is he the king of, exactly? Has he been ruling a secret city-state with an iron fist? Payson, perhaps?

    1. Yes….er….no. Could you restate the question?

    2. Sure – “nothing to see here, move along…”

  5. I don’t see why the West should denigrate liberalism in this region when so little has been done to consistently advance it.

    Have someone take you to a neighborhood historically dominated by organized crime, and you’ll find a community that publicly denies any need for peaceful rule of law. People act strangely when they daily live in fear. Guess what? Egypt and every other dictatorship is that neighborhood on a larger scale.

    It should come as no surprise that these vestiges of the Cold War have grown moribund, and ? absent any substantial freedoms of association or speech ? will be replaced by the most aggressive contending movement.

    If you then wish to conclude that Egyptians, Muslims, et al. fine; but don’t believe that you simply allow a cycle to persist.

    1. we’re not allowing a cycle to persist. the Egyptians are. governments reflect the culture of the nation. nothing comes out of thin air. we don’t doubt that what goes on in Russia tells us much about the Russians.

      if the people can’t conduct themselves in a way that makes wealth and stability we can do nothing except support the party that seems the least harmful, which for decades has been Mub. he does not slaughter people, nor produce streams of refugees, not keep concentration camps, not hang people for not shaving or shaving or women for showing hair under their scarf. when he goes will they get something better? in a year all those women out there in the streets may not be able to leave their houses without a male escort. they may not be able to go to school. is that what the people want? who knows? but it may be what they get. what you call dictatorship is what it has always been. it has never been different. it can’t be different unless the people come to a consensus and peacefully arrange things. in the west, so far, we have managed a high degree of personal freedom along with a high degree of personal responsibility. the two go together. everyone does not have those values. they get impatient with poverty and tyranny but don’t know how to make it better. and it may be that they actually desire more tyranny. freedom of the western variety is a serious burden. here, the underlying values that make it possible are being undermined by liberalism more and more.
      the US can do one thing only, be strong for itself and its allies, no matter what goes on abroad. that is where obama is going very wrong. weakness is the only error in foreign policy. in invites attack and derision.

  6. Last sentence should read “If you then wish to conclude that Egyptians, Muslims, et al. don’t want freedom fine; but don’t believe that you don’t simply allow a cycle to persist.”

  7. When it comes right down to it, all we can do is offer bribes and issue threats. A Mubarak will respond to both.
    A true jihadist is immune to both.

  8. I’d like to hear some of the Pollyannas, who’ve been coming out of the woodwork lately, explain how we should apply their altruism to places like Pakistan.

    1. From an American point of view, or a Pakistani point of view?

    2. Pakistan has nukes. At this point, that makes them fair game to UN/NATO intervention if stability heads south. Its unfortunate, but that’s the way its got to be to protect ourselves. With Egypt, no such danger exists.

  9. Pave it, nuke it, and then repave it. Problem solved.

  10. Why? They have no oil. Just kidding, seriously, let someone else deal with the Egyptian problem, other countries have armies, let them die for freedom for once.

  11. “Egypt’s still screwed up. Should the United States take an interest in the outcome?”


    1. There’s a difference between taking an interest and trying to affect the outcome. How Egypt and it’s American funded military ends up is certainly of interest to us. It doesn’t matter if we should or shouldn’t have given them the military aid, all it matters is that we have, and I don’t think it would be a good thing to have a belligerent and antagonistic Egypt.

      1. *its American funded military*

      2. Just what the fuck does “take an interest” mean? It is a phrase that means get involved or it means nothing!

  12. It’s disheartening to hear people clamoring for the government to give them jobs or somehow make jobs. Unfortunately, that’s happening in Egypt AND in the US.

  13. I don’t want the government to give me a job. I just want them to give me the money. It’s a lot easier for all concerned.

  14. Why did Obama roll out the red carpet for Chinese dictator Hu but turn his back on dictator Mubarak? Is it because Hu cracks down on Christians and others seeking to peaceably exercise their rights while Mubarak cracks down on Muslim fundamentalists? Is this just more of Obama’s kowtowing to the Muslim world?

    This man is selling America and her allies down the river. Just like Bill Clinton traded our nuclear secrets to the Red Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions, Obama has traded Britain’s nuclear secrets to Russia in exchange for the START treaty.…..rets.html#

    As embarrassing as WikiLeaks can be, it serves its purpose. After all, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

  15. I agree with you, if Obama did not dare to force Mubarak to back off, the US. Government will look weak and hesitant.

    Obama should immediately determine to force Mubarak back off. He is a dictator for 30 years, what Mubarak looking for?

    Don’t disturb the global economy were disrupted by a dictator who should be in its revolution by the Egypt people.

  16. Heh. There is no revolution in Egypt, and never really was. The crowds you see on the streets are actually regime supporters. Anti-Mubarak pro-regime:

    Mubarak was a military officer (Egyptian air force).
    President before him – Sadat – military officer (from Signal Corps).
    The one before him – Nasser – also a military officer.

    What Mubarak tried to do was to declare his son – who was not a military officer, and was not liked by the military – the next ruler of Egypt.

    That was the real revolution – attempt to change from military junta to hereditary monarchy. The protesters and the army have successfully prevented that.

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