According to Noam Chomsky, President Obama’s reaction to the Egyptian revolution conforms to the normal US response when one of their ‘favoured dictators’ loses control. ‘There is a kind of a standard routine,’ he says referring to Marcos, Duvalier, Ceauşescu and Suharto. ‘[K]eep supporting them as long as possible; then, it becomes unsustainable - typically, say, if the army shifts sides - switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names.’
What Chomsky fails to explore is what the Americans might do if they are unable to ‘restore the old system’. Following the dramatic departure of Mubarak, the situation in the region remains uncertain, but it is clear that the events witnessed over the past month will lead to a dramatic reconfiguration of power in the Middle East. Should this reconfiguration jeopardize Western strategic interests, it is likely that the US and its allies will use all means available to reassert their influence.
Nearly five-and-a-half decades have passed since Anglo-French troops landed in Port Said and Israeli forces crossed into the Sinai peninsular to try and wrest back control of the Suez canal, newly nationalized by President Nasser. Whilst much has changed since that time, the strategic importance of the canal and the pipeline that runs beside it is undiminished. With their economies dependent on oil and gas, Western powers are determined to prevent anything that might restrict their tankers, battleships and aircraft-carriers accessing the canal. Asked this month what action the US would take should travel through the shipping channel be disrupted, General Mattis, the head of US Central Command, replied: ‘We would have to deal with it diplomatically, economically, militarily.’
Washington policy-makers are deeply concerned at the sudden and unprecedented rise of people power that is sweeping the region.
With Iran’s 1979 revolution still fresh in the US collective memory, many express fears about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in spite of the fact that Egyptians do not want to create an Islamic state.
Indeed, a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 70 per cent of Egyptians were concerned at the global rise of Islamic extremism. A confluence of a number of factors including a strong civil society, moderate potential leadership in the shape of Mohamed El Baradei, Ayman Nour or Amr Moussa, do not quell fears in Washington.
They know that democracies are hard to predict and harder to control. Even a liberal, secular Western-looking democracy in Egypt would not prioritize US interests in the way that Mubarak’s regime has done for over 30 years and it would doubtless be much harder in its attitude towards Israel.
In January, ahead of a meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Hosni Mubarak to discuss the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned prophetically that ‘[t]he deadlocked peace process threatens the entire region.’ The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond make the need for intensive direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians more pressing than ever, but rather than pushing Israel towards the negotiating table, the recent geo-political shifts are likely to force Israel to even greater militarized isolationism.
Mubarak’s fall has meant the loss of a vital regional ally and Israel fears that Jordan, another key partner, could follow suit. Despite assurances by Egypt’s current military rulers that the 30 year peace treaty between the two countries would remain in place, Israel fears that a democratically elected government might abrogate the treaty and open Egypt’s border with Gaza.
While Washington undoubtedly had made contingency plans in preparation for the time when aging strongmen such as Mubarak stepped down, they had clearly not been prepared for the speed, force and direction of change. They are now playing catch-up, working to ensure a new Egyptian leadership that will be legitimate in the eyes of the Egyptian people as well as sympathetic to US interests. If this cannot be achieved and an ‘unfriendly’ government looks likely to take power in Cairo, the US and its allies will act - overtly or covertly - to safeguard their interests.
Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the US supported insurgent groups, sponsored coups, and fought real and proxy wars in order to protect and extend its influence. While the recent images of opposing groups hurling stones at each other in Tahrir square were horrifying enough, imagine the carnage if one or both of those groups had been armed.
In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama acknowledged that tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds have ‘been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.’
He failed to mention that, long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of these countries were still being treated as proxies with their leaders - including Hosni Mubarak - propped up by the West. As these leaders start to topple, the test for Obama will be the extent to which he can reign in the natural instincts of his foreign policy-makers and allow genuine democracy to take root in the Middle East’s shifting sands.