The solution to this problem has all too often resulted in a divergence from the pro-democracy philosophy, whereby the United States has lent its support to authoritarian dictators who have been better positioned than democratic governments to protect U.S. interests.
Such was the case in Iran before the 1979 Revolution, where the U.S.-backed Shah ruled with a heavy hand until eventually being forced from power. The U.S. has supported others such as Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak, although it eventually turned its back on both. Alliances with these leaders have been crucial in protecting U.S. interests, whether they be oil, resistance to communism or the fight against Islamic extremism.
With the current case of Egypt, the U.S. has therefore found itself in a difficult position. In the early stages of the uprising, the Obama administration pledged its support for Mubarak, although recommended he implement some changes. Within weeks, however, the White House was firmly behind the democratic resolve of the Egyptian people, heralding the lost legitimacy of Mubarak and advocating his removal. As an important ally of the U.S. in recent decades, Mubarak could be forgiven for feeling somewhat betrayed.
Egypt now finds itself at a crossroads and the rest of the world, the U.S. in particular, looks on in nervous anticipation of what is to come. For sure, the transition to democracy has been rocky at best in Egypt, and eliminating the residue of the former system in favor of a new order has been a major challenge.
Many in the West have feared the rise of the ultra-conservative Muslim movement in the newly forming government, much of which was heavily repressed under Mubarak’s reign. This is currently being represented by presidential candidate Hazem Salah abu Ismail, whose mix of Islamism and nationalism promises to return Egypt to a state much more fundamental in its religious practice, as well as seeking to reduce ties with the West. A policy agenda which includes reducing the marriage age to puberty and requiring women to wear the veil has Western diplomats quite concerned.
There is, however, a good chance these concerns will be relieved if, as is suspected, abu Ismail is disqualified from the race due to his mother being a naturalized U.S. citizen, which is forbidden by the rules. As this allegation is investigated, it appears the U.S. may indeed have a role yet to play in this situation.
If there was concern over abu Ismail’s candidacy, others are equally anxious over Omar Suleiman joining the race. Suleiman served briefly as Hosni Mubarak’s vice president during last year’s revolution, but spent the majority of his career working in Egyptian intelligence, during which time he is suspected of the widespread support and use of torture.
While Western countries may not be opposed to a secular president, the Egyptian people are overwhelmingly against Suleiman and fear that if he can manipulate the election in his favor, Egypt will take a huge step backward. The unrest that would result can only be imagined.
In an unlikely twist, Western countries now find themselves likely to support the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that has little favor for Western ties yet is a moderate compromise to the fundamentalist ideas of abu Ismail and the authoritarian tendencies likely with Suleiman. The election of the Brotherhood’s number two, Khairat al-Shater, may appease both Egyptians and other nations. As a former prisoner under Mubarak, he has vowed to remove power from military generals and place it firmly in civilian hands.
May’s election will prove a monumental and pivotal moment in Egyptian history. The U.S. and others will be looking on with great interest, hoping that political stability in and favorable ties with Egypt might result.