Did US Choices Lead Egypt to its Current Situation?

We, as a country, need to remember that do not hold levers that allow us to move events this way or that

There are, in my estimation, a large number of problems with Mort Zuckerman’s US News column on Egypt (Barack Obama’s Middle East Miscalculation).  Indeed, at first I did not know where to start but then it hit me that the key problem is the piece’s underlying predicate:  that US foreign policy decisions were the fundamental drive behind key events:

The White House completely miscalculated in Egypt, as it did in Gaza. It seemed only to care for the mechanics of the electoral process rather than the meaning of the results. Washington vacillated on who its Egyptian allies really are. We had long shared with the Egyptian military understandings on national security, ours with an eye to maintaining peace in the region. That relationship is now pretty much lost.

Americans, in their perennial innocence, have demanded that the generals turn over power to the civilians whomever they may be, just as they did to the Persian shah, just as they did after Israel’s pullout from Gaza when they hadn’t a clue about the danger posed by Hamas.

The main error here is twofold:  1)  that the US was the primary reason the Mubarak was ousted, and 2) that the ouster of Mubarak equaled the ouster of the military.

While I have no doubt that the call from the White House for Mubarak to step down helped hasten his exit, let’s not forget that the main motivating factor for his removal.  The Egyptian government had to address rather effective street protests in Egypt that had created a situation in which the military had to make a choice:  crack down or find some way of placating the mobs.  It is clear that the state had decided that it could not afford (or simply did not want) a crackdown.  As such, the chief bone that could be throw in the direction of Tahrir Square was Mubarak’s resignation. What that resignation meant, as I noted at the time, was that the military both a) suspended the constitution pending review, and b) remained in power (a fact that I re-iterated last June and last November).  The military remain in power now.  And, by the way, unless real constitutional reform is allowed to take place, they will remain in power even after the bizarre slow-motion parliamentary elections.

It strikes me as typical American hubris on Zukerman’s part to assume that the US was in control of the entire situation as if Mubarak would only have been ousted at the White House’s behest and that the consequent results of the events of last Spring are somehow in the US’ hands.  Note to Zuckerman:  the world is not a Choose Your Own Adventure novel* wherein the US chooses to turn to page 23 or 76.

As such, he actually misses the more important lesson of his own admonition:

The United States forgot the lessons of Iraq, namely, that it is easier to remove an Arab-state dictator by military means than it is to alter the internal balance of power and create a solid foundation for human rights.

I would point out before continuing that the ouster of Saddam and that of Mubarak are radically different events.  One required a military invasion by a foreign power and the destruction of the Iraqi state.  The other required the decision of the domestic military command and a plane ride to Sharm el-Sheikh*  Say what else one may about Egypt, but the state remains intact.  There is a difference between a military invasion of by a foreign power to remove a regime and bloodless military coup which leaves the major institutions of the state in place.  Both do use “military” as an adjective, I will grant, but they are otherwise substantially different actions.

Beyond all of that, he is right in the following sense:  it is difficult to predict the impact of major actions.  Likewise, we cannot predict what might have happened had the military no chosen to toss Mubarak overboard.

And yes, by the way, Zuckerman identifies a number of troubling incidences in Egypt of late, but rather than being the direct result of Mubarak’s ouster, or Washington’s rhetoric, they are part of the ongoing social unrest that spontaneously started just under a year ago.  The degree to which Mubarak’s ouster has fostered these actions is unclear.

Indeed, speaking of choosing our own adventures, let’s consider the options that were on the table last year:

A. Placate the protesters by promising deep constitutional reform leading to real regime change.

B.  Placate the protesters by ousting Mubarak and promising constitutional reform and elections (all of which under the control of the military high command).

C.  Crackdown on the protests

D.  Maintain the status quo (i.e., no offers of reform, no ouster of Mubarak, no crackdown).

Option A never appeared to be a real option and we know that the military chose AB.  They had already seemingly rejected C for whatever reason.

Now, “D” could have led to roughly three outcomes:

D1.  The protests could have continued at the existing rates.

D2.  The protests could have gotten worse.

D3.  The protests could have died of inertia (call it the OWS option).

Now, it was likely that D1 was going to continue for a while (they had demonstrated their ability to continue for the foreseeable future, meaning D3 seemed unlikely in the short term).  This was creating a substantial economic hardship, a fact that cannot be discounted.  D2 was a real risk.   D2 could have lead to violence and a less controlled situation for the state to manage.  It could have led to bloodshed, like in Syria (i.e., forcing the state into option C, which, again, they had consciously eschewed), or to a less controlled regime change.

As such, it not only not a surprise that the military took route B, but it underscores that that decisions were driven far more by the internal logic of the situation rather than what the US President had to say.  Were outside factors an issue (from what happened in Algeria, to what was happening at the time in other Arab Spring protests, to the disposition of DC)?  Of course, but one had to consider the relative significant of the variables.  Internal considerations in Egypt were, and remain, paramount to understanding outcomes.

To restate my fundamental objection to his reasoning: the US was never in charge of the events in Egypt. We, as a country, need to understand that while yes, the US is influential.  We do not hold levers that allow us to move events this way or that (and yet, as the GOP debates underscore, we tend to persist in the fantasy that we do). Indeed, that should be the main lesson of Iraq: that despite immense power, our ability to simply make things happen is limited.

And, really, the column fits into a broader problem with most discussions of Egypt which treat the choices as if they were dichotomous:  the Mubarak status quo or democracy of some sort, when, in fact the situation was substantially more complex than that.

FILED UNDER: Africa, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Let’s also keep in mind that when the U.S. government responded to Mubarak’s fall by attempting to install his chief torturer into the same office, the egyptian people refused to allow it to happen. Zuckerman and most of our foreign policy “experts” are living in denial.

  2. This has been a recurring theme on the right since Mubarak fell actually, with many conservatives arguing that President Obama “lost Egypt,” and endangered the security of the United States, Israel, and the entire Middle East by handing the country over to a bunch of Islamists. As I argued a couple months ago, that argument is utterly ridiculous.

  3. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Shorter neo-con thinking: Whatever Obama does in North Africa is wrong, but when a Republican is back in the Oval Office and decides to bomb Iran, everything will turn out A-OK.

  4. There is one way in which the US policy affected the outcome in Egypt: we mistakenly believed that our support could keep an unpopular dictatorship in power indefinitely. Instead it only delayed the inevitable, while at the same time allowed the regime to stamp out all secular political alternatives, assuring that when the end finally came, Islamists would be the only group left to fill the vacuum.

    Had we not drawn Mubarak’s regime out decades longer than necessary, we likely would have ended up with a far less hostile replacement.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Indeed, that should be the main lesson of Iraq: that despite immense power, our ability to simply make things happen is limited limitless.

    FTFY Steven. You have to admit that we definitely made things “happen” in Iraq.

  6. @OzarkHillbilly: Granted. Although I should think my intent was clear: to make things happen as we want.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I think you’re right, Steven. We can influence events or put them into action but we can’t determine their outcome.

    I think the real question, asked too infrequently to suit me, is what is the American interest and what will best accomplish it? Many of the directions in which one person or another, Mr. Zuckerman in particular, would push us are IMO not particularly in our interest.

    Take the Islamist parliament elected in Egypt, for example. I can understand the argument that it’s bad for Egypt but I don’t think it’s nearly as clear that it hurts U. S. interests.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    I agree with Dave: really good piece, Steven.

    Where I differ somewhat from Dave is that I think we have an almost intractable problem in determining our interests.

    We have an ill-informed electorate whose interest is periodically excited by the media. So we don’t care about Sudan, and then we, and then we don’t. And we don’t care about Liberia, and then we do, and then we don’t. The electorate is driven by media, by hyped threats and also by moral considerations. Not consistent moral considerations, but nevertheless strongly-felt.

    As we are a democracy, and as we have 24 hour media, and as we have a highly-polarized partisan government where politics no longer stops at the water’s edge (if it ever really did) it becomes almost impossible to formulate a long-term strategy.

    Imagine, for example, if we concluded that Israel was not worth its current level of support. Or imagine if we decided our interests were served by publicly backing Islamists in Turkey. Or by conceding that Iran should be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Or that we felt South Korea should be left to handle its own defense. The partisan firestorm and subsequent awakening of public interest would make it impossible to maintain those positions.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Where I differ somewhat from Dave is that I think we have an almost intractable problem in determining our interests.

    I don’t think it’s so much intractable as that the mechanisms we are using to discern our interests are poorly suited to the task. American grand strategy, as I have frequently noted before, is an emergent phenomenon. By its construction Congress is supposed to arrive at that strategy.

    Unfortunately, the Congress has delegated too much of its powers to the executive and is itself warped by partisanship, safe districts, gerrymandering, and a committee system which has as its aim making the Congress as unrepresentative as is possible. That obscures the information Congress is supposed to be able to provide and rigs the game in the direction of Congress’s biggest and most influential supporters.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Dave Schuler: I think you need to replace our(US) interests with Israeli interests to understand this. While you are right that ab Islamist parliament in Egypt doesn’t matter when it comes to U.S. interests it certainly matters to Israeli interests. The Zuckermans and Krauthammers are concerned more about Israel than the U.S. Of course the fact that war is very profitable for a few large corporations is also in play.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Granted. Although I should think my intent was clear: to make things happen as we want.

    Well, yeah….. but then that is the difference between you and a Republican…. You can tell the difference. They can not.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    also, I have a t-shirt that says: “Sarcasm…. It beats killing people.”

    Look guys, I know sarcasm does not translate so well on the internet, but telling you I am being sarcastic every time I am being sarcastic…. Well…. it kinda loses it’s punch. Soooooo…..

    If you don’t get it, put on your “Sarcasmatron” found exclusively at Stupid Sh!t.com

  13. grumpy realist says:

    Unfortunately, the average American has as much knowledge of The Rest Of The World as the average Japanese in 1800 had of the world outside Japan; namely, zilch. Add to that the standard Christian Millenium Darbyism afflicting too many of our citizens, and I’m surprised we haven’t yet tried to set off WWIII to bring on the Rapture. (Hey, if it means that WE could take OUR religious nuts and park them out somewhere in the Sahara desert and the Israelis could take THEIR religious nuts and put them alongside and we could get the equivalent nuts from the Islamic countries as well…..)