After an initially tentative and cautious approach, Obama is has finally issued a public call for Mubarak to bow to the demands of the Egyptian people and step down immediately. Compared to his missteps in response to the Honduran constitutional crisis and his ineffective calls for reform during the Iranian protests, President Obama’s response to the Egyptian revolution is far more nuanced and politically savvy. For those who have compared Obama's foreign policy to that of Jimmy Carter, this may be a turning point.
Coming into office, Obama had absolutely no foreign policy experience whatsoever and even now is relying on the combined expertise, such as it is, of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, foreign leaders and the diplomatic establishment types were advising the President this weekend to take a soft tone with Egypt. Mubarak is, or was, a distasteful and embarrassing ally, but in the face of a popular uprising, geopolitical strategy cannot trump political reality.
Tip-toeing the middle ground is perhaps a prudent strategy to appease European and liberal coastal elites, but it is not winning us any points with the people of Egypt—the very people with whom we will have to negotiate when, not if, Mubarak falls. As with the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should openly and forcefully support the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people.
Another consideration is the potential catastrophe of a takeover by the extremist Muslim Brotherhood. The last thing America needs is another Iran, but this time sharing a border with Israel and controlling the Suez Canal. However, it is worth noting that Egypt today is a very different place from Iran in 1979. While the Egyptian people may have no great love for America, the protestors despise Mubarak for his oppressive regime, not because he is seen as a puppet of the West.
Rather than fretting about the potential for an Iranian-style theocracy in Egypt, a better example from history may be the Indonesian Revolution of 1998. Just as in Egypt today, Indonesia was faced with economic turmoil because of a financial crisis. Rising food prices and a stagnant economy propelled pro-democracy forces to take to the streets demanding change. After initial clashes with protestors, the military leadership eventually forced Suharto into exile after a 32-year dictatorship.
The Egyptian people are not being led by an extremist like the Ayatollah, but have gathered together through the power of social networks—the most thoroughly Western of inventions. Egypt is also the center of many of the Arab world’s cultural institutions. The hundreds of thousands of protestors—perhaps even millions—are demanding an end to censorship, not full-scale fundamentalism. Most of all, the protestors are demanding an end to the pervasive corruption that is stifling the Egyptian economy.
Less than two years ago, President Obama spoke in Cairo about the need for greater freedom in the region. Instead of succumbing to paralysis and doing nothing, Obama is finally living up to his own rhetoric. Mubarak's pledge to not seek re-election is the fruit of diplomatic efforts by the Obama Administration, but judging from the reaction in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the Egyptian people will not settle for half-measures. Let us hope that Mubarak will listen to Obama and allow the peaceful transition to begin, not in September, but immediately.