Egypt's military regime has managed to preserve itself while the world watched and debated the possibilities and pitfalls of a democratic Egypt. Yes, Hosni Mubarak has resigned, and the military's Supreme Council now directly governs the country. But as it becomes clear that the neutrality of the Egyptian military was one part of a larger strategy of delay and consolidation of power, and we see that some form of Egypt's military's authoritarian system will endure without Mubarak, the United States is confronted by the new problem of how to respond to an allied authoritarian regime's continued survival. Instead of best-case or nightmare scenarios, Washington faces the uninspiring and unavoidable work of rebuilding a U.S.-Egyptian relationship that has been damaged and yet remains critical to U.S. global security.
Obama administration officials have proceeded cautiously and have done reasonably well under the circumstances. But they are now running up against stiff resistance from an Egyptian regime that has been shaken but is quickly regaining its footing. Having granted significant concessions, including Mubarak’s departure, members of the regime, especially newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman (who also serves as the country's intelligence chief), are in no mood for more compromise. One of the chief demands of protesters and Washington has been the repeal of the emergency law with which the regime has governed the country for decades. That appears to be something that Suleiman and his allies consider nonnegotiable, so long as the regime is under pressure. Indeed, the role of the regime as both "arsonist and firefighter" since January 25 makes the repeal of the emergency law highly unlikely as long as protests continue. The regime has been doing all that it can to make sure its emergency powers remain in place, and the longer the protests go on, the more stubbornly it will insist on keeping those powers.
Ellis Goldberg has argued in an article for Foreign Affairs that the military's vested interests in the existing political and economic structure are probably too great to permit a full transition to democratic government. More likely, Goldberg writes, is the culmination of the slow-motion coup and the return of the somewhat austere military authoritarianism of decades past. The Obama administration has to decide whether to acknowledge and respond to this reality, or continue claiming that transition to a fully representative democratic government will soon be underway. If it chooses to deal with the military rulers of Egypt, it will be adjusting to the way things actually are, rather than the way Americans might like them to be.
In light of all this, it is laughable to think that a regime that has withstood a sustained popular revolt would have yielded to American calls for political reform. Leaked diplomatic cables confirm that the Egyptian president rejected the Obama administration's pressure for political reform because Mubarak associated democracy promotion with the disasters of Iraq and Gaza. Far from feeling the pressures of a "freedom agenda," as ideological Obama critics have maintained, the Egyptian government has becoming increasingly authoritarian in recent years in reaction to the uncertainty and chaos unleashed by the previous administration’s "freedom agenda."
Some critics of U.S. entanglements in the Near East saw the recent uprising as an occasion to end American aid to Egypt and dissociate ourselves from a harsh authoritarian government. But in their way, they were as unduly optimistic as the advocates of democracy promotion who insisted that the administration side openly with the protest movement in calling for Mubarak's departure and the end of the old regime. Had the administration heeded either call, it would not have hastened Mubarak's fall, but it would have deprived the United States of what leverage it possessed. Had such heavy-handed pressure been unsuccessful, it could have effectively destroyed the alliance with Egypt, and the main beneficiary of all this would have been Iran.
There is an argument to be made that the United States should risk concrete strategic interests when fundamental principles are at stake, but that trade-off was never really available in Egypt. Full regime change is not going to happen so long as the Egyptian military remains invested in the current system. Even if it were possible and we assumed that all would have turned out well following regime change in Egypt, it would not have made it easier to disentangle the U.S. from the region’s affairs. Any instability or conflict caused by rapid political change in Egypt would have become a pretext for deeper U.S. intervention. If Americans want to see democratic governments in the Near East, they will need to reject the foreign policy commitments that keep the U.S. tied to authoritarian regimes in the region. If the U.S. is to disentangle itself from the region, the impetus for that will have to come from the American public rather than from protesters in Egypt.