What Should The United States Do About Egypt? How About Nothing?

Let's leave Egypt to the Egyptians.

The latest round of political developments in Egypt is leading some people wonder what, if anything, the United States should do about a political situation that seems to be drifting fairly quickly what will essentially amount to a military-run state with the veneer of civilian rule. Greg Scoblete suggests that we leave Egypt to the Egyptians:

In the spirit of bi-partisan bridge-building, let me suggest a third way: the U.S. should do nothing in Egypt. It’s shocking, I know, to imagine an option whereby the United States forswears the prerogative to micromanage how another country manages its internal affairs, but it seems like the least-worst option when it comes to Egypt.

Daniel Larison agrees:

[T]here doesn’t seem to be much for the U.S. to do. The ruling junta continues to entrench itself. What Washington has to say about this seems to be irrelevant to them. Regardless of the election outcome, the Egyptian presidency appears to have become a much weaker institution than it has been. Even if Morsi wins, there isn’t anything that the U.S. needs to do in response, since some of Morsi’s supporters probably backed him simply to protest the dissolution of parliament. There will then be an uneasy and fraught relationship between military and civilian authorities in the future. Egypt’s government will likely be even more heavily dominated by the military than it was a year and a half ago. Most Egyptians don’t trust the U.S., so whatever the U.S. attempted to do at this point would be viewed with suspicion.


It is not our government’s responsibility to try to manipulate or shape Egypt’s political development. There is no compelling U.S. interest in becoming more enmeshed in internal Egyptian political quarrels over which our government clearly has little or no influence. The U.S. shouldn’t expect to receive credit or gratitude for not interfering, but there is no advantage for the United States to be had by increased interference.

The most important point here, I think, is the one that Larison makes above. Most Egyptians don’t have a very high opinion of the United States these days, no doubt in part because of our long history backing Mubarak in particular and the military in general. It’s difficult to believe that they would take any effort we might make to try to influence the political situation on the ground in Egypt. Indeed, if we were seen taking sides at this point it’s likely that it would harm the interests of whomever it is that we ended up backing. More importantly, though, who exactly would the United States support right now? The non-military options appear to be limited to former Mubarak cronies and the Muslim Brotherhood, neither of which seem either acceptable or in the long term interests of the Egyptian people. If there was a viable third force made up of the liberals and intellectuals who led the February 2011 protests then perhaps it would be a different story, but there isn’t largely because those people failed to realize that they were being out-organized by their opponents. In the end, whoever we backed now would probably end up causing problems for us in the future as much as our support for Mubarak and the military, which is unfortunate but at least arguably in our national interests, and that argues strongly in favor of not getting involved in a situation that we don’t understand.

There’s another problem with this whole argument, of course, and that’s the fact that it reveals no small degree of hubris in the belief that we actually have the power to positively effect the political future of Egypt or any other nation regardless of what the situation on the ground might be. It is the same kind of attitude one sees from the people who continue to ridiculously blame Obama for “losing” Egypt when, as I pointed out last December, there’s really very little we could have done to prevent Mubarak’s regime from collapsing:

The idea that there was much of anything that the United States either could have, or should have, done during the Egyptian protests that would have kept Mubarak in power any longer ignores all of the available evidence. The protesters in Tahrir Square and in other cities in Egypt had made clear that they would not negotiate with anyone — not the military, not Egypt’s new Vice-President (a Mubarak crony) — until Mubarak himself had stepped aside as early as the end of January. Nothing Mubarak did persuaded them to leave the protests. Much like the downfall of Nicolae Ceacescu in Romania, the crowds were not going to leave until the dictator had left. The idea that we could have controlled that process is absurd, and the suggestion that we should have stood aside and let Mubarak brutally repress this rebellion is, quite honestly, an insult to American decency.

The future of Egypt will be decided, in the end, by the Egyptian people. Perhaps we should leave them do it without all of our “help.”

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Rob in CT says:

    I agree, generally, except for 1 pesky thing: we are somewhat entangled with Egypt no matter how hands-off we’d prefer to be, because of the deal we made to help make peace between Egypt and Israel decades ago. So the totally hands-off, no involvement route isn’t actually available. We give them, what, about a billion a year?

    That said, I agree on the proper course of action: stay out of it as much as possible. Our involvement is likely to be counter-productive, if anything.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    @Rob in CT: That’s the problem with our foreign policy in the region – it’s driven by what is best for Israel not for the US. Same applies to Iran.

  3. DRS says:

    I totally agree with Larison, Doug. If we minded our own business more, we might find out we had more friends in the world than we thought.

  4. Tlaloc says:

    I wish more of political discussion was driven by people like Larison. I don;t always agree with him but he’s thoughtful.

  5. Jeremy says:

    @Ron Beasley: This times eleventy million. Unfortunately, our “leadership” in Washington is held captive by the Israel lobby, and at the moment, I don’t see a path out.

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I got a kick out of this post. It’s sort of a looking glass through which one can see the mind’s eye of the sort of demographic that makes up such a disproportionate share of the Internet’s chattering classes. The reflexive resentment of and antipathy towards U.S. power really is quite remarkable. Quite telling too. The comments also are amusing in sort of tragicomedy sense. With some of these comments not only do you get reflexive resentment of and antipathy towards U.S. power there’s also the obligatory vein of anti-Semitism lurking just beneath the surface.

    In any event, on this topic it would appear that doing nothing is the only viable option, at least at present. Presumably, however, the CIA is doing what’s necessary as far as human intelligence goes to figure out what the sides are up to and on whose side we should be. We’ve come a long way from the Torricelli principle; David Petraeus is to George Tenet what a ton of bricks is to a balloon. Panetta is no slouch. We’re in pretty good hands.

  7. wr says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: So the post and the commenters demonstrate an antipathy towards US power and anti-semitism because they advocate staying out of Egypt.

    Which is exactly the course that you then recommend.

    So do you show an antipathy towards US power and a hatred of Jews? Or is it simply that if you advocate a policy it means one thing, but if someone else advocates exactly the same policy it means something completely different?

    Or are you just a blowhard who likes to appear worldly and wise on the internet, but in actuality has no idea what you’re talking about once we dig any deeper than cliches like “chattering class”?

  8. PJ says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    That’s the problem with our foreign policy in the region – it’s driven by what is best for Israel not for the US. Same applies to Iran.

    And best for Israel is if Mubarak had stayed in power and Assad stays in power.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    there’s also the obligatory vein of anti-Semitism lurking just beneath the surface

    If disagreement with Israel’s policy is antisemitic then most of the Jews here on the left coast are antisemitic. The very creation of Israel was as bad an idea as the EURO. The European support for the creation was itself antisemitic – a way to get rid of the Jews in Europe. Yes the death camps were horrible – so give the Jews Southern Bavaria – it makes more sense than land in the middle east.

  10. Rob in CT says:

    With some of these comments not only do you get reflexive resentment of and antipathy towards U.S. power there’s also the obligatory vein of anti-Semitism lurking just beneath the surface.

    Vile slander, sir.


    And then you say this:

    In any event, on this topic it would appear that doing nothing is the only viable option, at least at present.


    Does it cause you physical pain to agree with lefties/left-leaning types on a FP issue, such that you must cover said pain with barbs about anti-semitism and self-hating Americans?

  11. george says:

    Yup, staying out of it is a great idea.

    I wish staying out of external involvements were our default (you know, like the founding fathers suggested), and we needed exceptional reasons to get involved in other people’s affairs, rather than the other way around. Where are all the “small gov’t” people when our gov’t is getting involved in affairs around the world? How can that possibly be considered small gov’t?