Originally Published 2011-02-11 00:00:00 Published on Feb 11, 2011
The current wave of protests sweeping across the Arab world has the Obama administration worried, particularly about Egypt. Interestingly, each protest in the region has targeted rulers who have been allied to the US for long. The US thus finds itself in a delicate situation.
Arab protests: the American dilemma
The current wave of protests sweeping across the Arab world has the Obama administration worried, particularly about Egypt. Interestingly, each protest in the region has targeted rulers who have been allied to the US for long. The US thus finds itself in a delicate situation. Why exactly is the US in a dilemma? What are its interests in the countries where protests are occurring?

US Interests

Let us take Egypt, currently the epicentre of the protests. President Hosni Mubarak is a key ally of the US and has been the beneficiary of billions in aid, economic and military, over the years. First, Egypt has been a key ally of the US in the war against terrorism and has shared vital intelligence with it. In fact, there are reports that suspected terrorists were brought to secret prisons in Egypt for "deeper interrogation" by the Americans.

Secondly, Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel (America’s strongest ally) in 1979, leading to a ’cold peace’ between the two countries. President Mubarak throughout his reign has abided by the treaty ensuring that Israel continues its stranglehold over Gaza. The peace treaty has also ensured that Israel’s border with Egypt remained peaceful. Moreover, without Egypt leading them, it would be difficult for other Arab countries to defeat Israel in a war.

Thirdly, Egypt controls the flow of oil through the Suez Canal and the transit of US ships through it. Also, Mubarak provided some degree of political stability as well as stability about oil prices and oil supplies to the US from the region. Fourthly, Egypt under Mubarak acted as a counterpoint to Iran’s influence in the region. Fifthly, the rise of Islamic radicalism in the region after the end of the Cold War unnerved the US so much that it preferred a dictator like Mubarak, compared to the seeming confusion of a democracy and the chance of right-wing parties antagonistic to America coming to power.

These five reasons are more of less true of US interests in Yemen and Saudi Arabia as well. As the Wikileaks cables showed, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh facilitated US drone attacks on Al-Qaeda targets in Yemen, claiming that the drone attacks were conducted by the Yemeni Air Force. Saudi Arabia has the added advantage of having vast oil reserves, ensuring stable oil supplies to the US.

The Arab revolutions or calls for democratisation thus present a peculiar challenge for the US: on the one hand, it needs to be seen as being supportive of democratization while on the other hand, it cannot dump its allies. These dictators have ruled the countries for many years and there are chances that they may succeed in putting a stop to the uprisings or ensure that those who come to power after them are their supporters. So if the US ditches them now, it might well find itself short of allies in the Middle East. Besides, the US’ reliability as an ally would come under question in other countries. Thus, standing by the dictators would help re-assure other allies about the US’ sincerity in supporting them.

There is always the risk that if the revolutions do succeed, right wing forces, who base their support on anti-Americanism and Islam, might come to power. On the other hand, promoting democracy is an important goal of US foreign policy, particularly in the post Cold War era. The US cannot afford to be seen as strengthening the hands of dictators as it runs the risk of increasing the anti-Americanism in the Middle East and also risks falling on the wrong side of history by acting against the wishes of the Arab people.

The US Reaction

This being the case, it is no wonder that the Arab revolutions have put the US in a difficult situation, reminding many of the Iranian revolution of 1979. During the Tunisian revolution, the US adopted a pro-democracy stance, with Obama proclaiming in his State of the Union address that the US supports the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people. This was relatively easy to do considering that the US does not have as deep interests in Tunisia as its does in Egypt, Yemen or Saudi Arabia.

When protests broke out in Egypt, the administration initially reacted cautiously, urging Mubarak to introduce reforms but stopping short of asking him to step down, walking the tightrope of pleasing both the despotic ruler and his people so that either way, it wins. Over the days, as the protestors showed no signs of relenting, it threw its weight behind the pro-democracy protests, calling for a "peaceful" and "orderly transition". However, with Mubarak refusing to step down, the US has become more vocal about its support for the pro-democracy movement.

In Obama’s statement on Egypt on 11 February, he called on the Egyptian government to "put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy".1  The administration has indicated that it will pursue a dual-track approach in the coming weeks, talking to civil rights activists as well as Egyptian officials to encourage reform.2  The media in the US has largely been supportive of the protests. The US Senate also passed a unanimous resolution last week urging Mubarak to hand power over to a caretaker government as part of a peaceful transition to democracy. There is some acceptance of the limits of the US’ ability to influence events and a "candid acknowledgement" that no one really knows where this uprising will lead.3

Implications for the US

The nature of the regimes that could come to power is something that worries the Americans. Dictators like Mubarak have been the lynchpin of the American-imposed order in the Middle East and have acted as counterpoints to Iran’s influence in the region. Given the anti-Israel sentiments on the Arab streets, it is unlikely that the status quo in relations with Israel will continue under more democratic regimes. This could lead to more friction between the US, Israel and the Arab countries. If the current chaos leads to long-term instability, US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan could be seriously impaired. Also, the dictatorships provided some amount of political stability as well as stability about oil prices and oil supplies to the US. This could change if leaders who decide to deal on their own terms come to power in these countries. This would have serious implications for the energy security not only of the US, but also of other countries. These leaders could also be more amenable to Iranian influence and the US could well find itself against a whole block of anti-American countries and regimes in the region. America’s military bases in the region would be at stake in such a scenario. Thus, there could be a huge shift in the balance of power in the region.  

Uma  Purushothaman is Junior Fellow, ORF
1  This statement can be viewed at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/02/10/statement-president-barack-obama-egypt.
2  Scott Wilson and Joby Warrick, ’As Arabs Protest, Obama Administration Offers Assertive Support’, The Washington Post, 27 January 2011.
3  Anne Applebaum ’U.S. Deeds don’t Follow U.S. Words on Egypt’, The Washington Post, February 8, 2011.


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