Wednesday and Thursday mark Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential elections. Sadly, what should be a purple-fingered moment brings some hope and much disappointment. Don’t get me wrong—Mubarak was a loathsome stooge, a petty and incompetent rentier tyrant who deserved what he got and more. But like too much of the Arab Spring, more properly called the Arab Awakening, a lot of bad comes with a little bit of good. The good is the election itself, with a full array of 13 candidates, only four of them real contenders. Plenty will be written about the elections by reporters and analysts alike, many in Egypt to watch the two day (and maybe a runoff) process continue. Right now, it’s clear that an Islamist of one stripe or another (Muhammad Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party; ex-Brotherhoodnik Abdel Monem Abouel Fetouh) or a Mubarak retread (Amr Moussa, the completely unmissed ex-Mubarak foreign minister or ex-PM Ahmed Shafiq) will head for an uncertain future as Egypt’s new president, trapped between an Islamist parliament and an unbridled military.
How did we end up in this pickle? Where to start? Probably in 1979, when we began buying Egypt’s government for compliance with the Camp David Accords. The rest is really just gravy. We bought Mubarak and looked the other way at his incompetent economic management, his growing authoritarianism, and his lack of interest in the peace underpinning Camp David. Sure, having him was better than not, but we accepted little and paid a lot, setting a precedent that does not hold elsewhere in the region. It was a bungled relationship by Washington from the start and never got much better. But, having decided rather belatedly to stand with those who would liberate Egypt, we might as well have gone all in and sought to influence Egypt’s future course. Not for money, but for power and success. A competently managed Egypt can prosper; a moderate leader can embrace all of Egypt and stabilize the country. We could have helped define the path; instead we watched as if Egypt was a Saturday morning cartoon.
Does the U.S. have influence in the Middle East? Yes. Do we use it? No. Aid to Egypt should not have continued absent guarantees of rights for minorities, commitment to the peace process, the appointment of a technocrat to address Egypt’s soaring unemployment, and other sensible first steps. The power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should have been defined.
Egypt has a choice between two futures: One with the United States helping the nation dig out of its hole, focusing on money, jobs, minorities, and the rule of law. Those aren’t mysteries to us. We could have been on the ground actively promoting better candidates and educating. The other future is a regression, without America, without peace, under the Saudi thumb, vying with Turkey for most improved Islamist Arab nation.
Those choices weren’t, to be fair, all up to Egypt. They were also up to the United States. And Barack Obama simply didn’t care; not about Egypt, not about the outcome. The nation in which he launched his maiden speech to the Arab world launched a revolution, and Obama was at a loss for words.
Either the United States knows what it wants in the Arab world and cajoles, bullies, educates, and bribes its way there, or it throws its hands in the air and lets God sort it out. Obama doesn’t want us to do it, doesn’t care if anyone else does, and doesn’t believe God will fix it either. This is now American foreign policy. Hope in providence. But that won’t be enough to feed Egypt’s poor, or assuage Israel’s concerns, or revitalize a country that once was and should be a regional leader. Freedom comes with responsibility, and not just for those who seek to be free. Their neighbors, their patrons, and their allies all have responsibilities, too. Egyptians can rightly ask whether we are meeting ours to them.