US 'Orderly Transition' in Egypt Really 'Business as Usual' in Disguise

Published on
by
Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF)

US 'Orderly Transition' in Egypt Really 'Business as Usual' in Disguise

The Fake Moderation of America's Moderate Mideast Allies

by
Asli Bali and Aziz Rana

President Obama listens to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak on Sept. 1 in Washington. Washington's response to the Egyptian uprising has repeatedly invoked the language of moderation, order and stability. Such language encourages protesters to accept incremental reforms in place of the peaceful democratic revolution that ordinary Egyptians have created and sustained. The call for orderly transition and managed reform is, in fact, a call for more of the same. (Charles Dharapak, AP)

As the Mubarak regime turns to violence in a vain attempt to repress
the peaceful protests that have swept Egypt's streets for over ten days,
the risks associated with current U.S. strategy for Egypt and the wider
region continue to grow. In its response to the events, the Obama
administration has subtly shifted its message, incrementally increasing
pressure on the regime over the last week. But the more important story
is the remarkable continuities reflected in the administration's
approach.

Indeed, Washington's response has departed little from its original
script. This script involves repeatedly invoking the language of
"moderation" and order and stability. Such language defends a
wait-and-see approach and encourages protesters to accept incremental
reforms in place of the peaceful democratic revolution that ordinary
Egyptians have created and, against all odds, sustained. The call for
orderly transition and managed reform is, in fact, a call for more of
the same.

This approach - including any U.S. backed effort to remove Mubarak
while retaining the larger regime through the new Vice President Omar
Suleiman - is no longer viable. Nor is a belated demand for an end to
violence sufficient. A definitive break from the scripts of stability
and moderation and a reorientation of American policy toward Egypt -and
the broader region - around the democratic aspirations of protesters is
the only way forward.

A Familiar Story

Resort to the language of order, stability, incrementalism, and
moderation is hardly new and existed well before the events of last
week. Not only is it consistent with the basic stance that the Obama
administration has taken toward the Middle East from the very outset,
but it reflects the long trajectory of American practices in the region,
which have depended on shoring up Arab authoritarians who are willing
to serve in an American "axis of moderation."  The members of this axis
-- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan -- have displayed little in
common other than a commitment to sustaining current U.S. foreign policy
priorities - on Israel/Palestine, the containment of Iran, and access
to oil. What they pointedly do not share is any tangible commitment to
actual moderation - understood as an internal project of democratization
or political openness. This latter fact has been powerfully exposed by
the nonviolent demonstrations across the region, and, as in the case of
Egypt, the increasingly brutal response such protest has elicited from
"moderate" allies. 

At the heart of American support for such autocrats is a false
opposition between chaos and order, with many in Washington arguing that
the only way to avoid pervasive regional violence is to maintain the
status quo. But rather than calling for stasis, the United States now
has a chance both to vindicate its rhetoric of democracy and in the
process to produce a more lasting and stable regional peace. The events
of the recent weeks underscore that long-term stability can neither be
provided from the outside nor afforded to regimes that are best
characterized by their willingness to advance Western preferences at the
expense of repressing the preferences of their own citizens. If U.S.
interests lie with a stable regional order, such a goal actually
requires realigning American goals with those of local players deemed
legitimate by their own people. This might mean building strategies
around allies that cannot always be counted on to toe an American line.

This shift would require abandoning a vision of Pax-Americana. But it
would nonetheless produce a region better able to serve as a partner
over the coming decades. In other words, democracy for the Middle East
need not be thought of as incompatible with order and synonymous with
extremist violence. Rather, a region of democratic regimes that enjoy
domestic legitimacy is likely the only viable method of ensuring that
governments do not replay a continuous cycle of repression,
entrenchment, and collapse.

If it fails to alter course, the Obama administration may well
finally and irrevocably deplete its credibility in the region. For a
decade local democracy advocates in the Middle East have called for
change and hoped for Western support - only to be disappointed. On the
rare occasion where support for democracy yielded free and fair
elections - as in the Palestinian elections of 2006 - those outcomes
were repudiated and replaced with punitive strategies, as exemplified by
the blockade on Gaza. More often the language of democracy has been
coupled with orchestrated exercises that returned reliable American
clients to power. These dual tactics left many democracy activists on
the ground suspicious of U.S. intentions and lent support to the view
that the United States opposed local democratic demands.

Disappointing Responses

To date Western responses to events in Egypt have been depressingly
familiar. The leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom took
the unusual step of issuing a joint statement last weekend, but
substantively it was nothing other than business as usual.
Congratulating Mubarak on his "moderating influence" in the region,
Prime Minister David Cameron, President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Chancellor
Angela Merkel urged him
"to show the same moderation in addressing the current situation in
Egypt." Messages from Europe this week have continued this theme,
calling for reforms by the Mubarak regime rather than recognizing the
legitimate demands of Egyptians for regime change.

Similarly, the message from President Obama on Tuesday focused on
underscoring "orderly transition," an apparent endorsement of Mubarak's
strategy to remain in office until September. In Mubarak's February 1
address, he disparaged pro-democracy protesters while simultaneously
posing the alternatives between his continued role and their demands as a
choice between chaos and stability. President Obama stated in his
address later that same evening that he had spoken to Mubarak and
communicated to him the call for order and transition. The common themes
underlying the President's preferred approach and Mubarak's own framing
- chaos versus order - reflects a disturbing convergence around a
blinkered vision for Egypt.

The emphasis on "orderly" or managed transition in Obama's speech
suggests coded language for a strategy of keeping Mubarak in office
until a medium-term alternative can be identified. If events in the
streets of Egypt demand a faster pace of change, an alternative
shorter-term strategy of "transition" may yet emerge. Wednesday's
violence and the Obama administration's response suggest that the United
States might bow to the inevitability of a near-term exit for Mubarak.
Yet such an exit may well be managed through U.S. coordination with
Mubarak and his inner circle to produce another "orderly" process that
maintains the regime - for instance, through Suleiman - until September
or beyond. If the Obama administration supports either of these
strategies of regime maintenance in the short- or medium-term - the U.S.
approach will increasingly diverge from the demands of ordinary
citizens for democracy.

Although both Mubarak and Obama have framed the issue as chaos versus
order, the protesters in Egypt have shown the falseness of this
dichotomy by being peaceful, nonviolent, and orderly, even to the point
of organizing spontaneous neighborhood watches to secure their homes and
national treasures like the Egyptian museum. They have acted in line
with the basic political commitments purportedly favored by the West:
freedom, human rights, and democracy.

By contrast, the regime that Western leaders have lauded for decades
as a beacon of moderation has unleashed its salaried, plainclothes
security personnel to loot its own cities, set fire to its streets, and
attack unarmed protesters with Molotov cocktails, knives, U.S.-supplied
tear gas canisters, and live ammunition. The new Vice President Suleiman
now promises to employ the same security services to arrest those the
regime chooses to blame for the disorder and violence it has wrought.

A Flawed Transition

Providing Mubarak, or his regime, with an additional eight months to
crush domestic opponents, hand- select a successor that will hew to
existing policies - in line with Western preferences - and orchestrate
another round of Egypt's notorious elections is no formula for peace or
stability. Such a U.S. strategy, in coordination with the Egyptian
regime, would be a renewed license for Mubarak (or his vice president)
to sow the very forms of violence and repression with which the regime
has long been identified. Calling for "all sides" to act with
moderation, maintaining supposed "neutrality" between unarmed peaceful
protesters and a regime using U.S.-supplied materiel to threaten and
attack its people is understood across the region as choosing the side
of Mubarak. Nor is the belated request that the regime desist from
violence sufficient, absent a clear and unequivocal expression of
support for the core demands of the protesters: an immediate end to the
Mubarak regime (not limited to the departure of Mubarak), constitutional
reform, and the convening of free and fair parliamentary and
presidential elections.

Supporting the demands of the Egyptian people, rather than an
"orderly transition" managed by a fatally compromised Egyptian regime,
will require Washington to enter into unchartered territory in its
Middle East policies. The United States will have to redefine stability
in terms that embrace local concerns with democratic legitimacy. As a
consequence, Western leaders must recognize that the alternatives
presented by events in Egypt are not solely a region of adversaries or
clients. There is also the possibility of a region with its own internal
priorities and resources, one that can be engaged with rather than
dictated to.

The following weeks will provide a profound opportunity to reset the
U.S. and European approach. Perhaps the high rhetoric of Barack Obama's
Cairo speech may yet be redeemed. If not, events in Cairo and beyond
will represent the death knell of the president's promise of a better
posture for the United States in the Middle East and the wider Muslim
world. It will make clear that for all the talk of freedom and
moderation, the United States seems willing to jettison both at the
slightest turn of events.

Asli Bâli is acting professor of law at UCLA School of Law and an editor
at Middle East Report and Aziz Rana is assistant professor of law at
Cornell Law and author of
The Two Faces of American Freedom out now from Harvard University Press. They are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Share This Article

More in: