Paul Pillar

Stepping Gingerly Through the Turmoil in Egypt

The Egyptian revolution is at a difficult inflection point. A peaceful protest last Friday deteriorated over the weekend into some of the most violent confrontations in Egypt since earlier this year when the objective of protests was to oust Hosni Mubarak. With parliamentary elections scheduled for the coming week, the next several days look just as rough as the past few. If the elections proceed, the current unstable environment will make it hard for them to be conducted in an orderly and fair manner, or at least for them to be widely accepted as orderly and fair. But if the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were to postpone the election, an eruption far worse than the disturbances of the past few days could ensue. That last outcome conceivably could be avoided if, as some Egyptians are demanding, a new national-unity government were formed. No one really knows what that would look like, however, and there is little or no chance that the SCAF would agree to be supplanted by such a government. Meanwhile the lines of division and disagreement in Egypt are as complicated as ever. Some of those lines run not just between the military rulers and civilian population but also between those contenders for influence that, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are well enough organized to compete effectively in an early election and those that are not.

Those are just the immediate, short-term problems. There also are continuing, longer-term contradictions between various attributes of what both Egyptians themselves and sympathetic outsiders might like to see in a new Egypt. One such contradiction is between stability, on one hand, and progress toward a more democratic political order on the other. Another is between democracy per se and the protection of individual rights and liberties in the face of what might otherwise be a tyranny of the majority.

This state of affairs has many of the attributes of a no-win situation. There is no clear route out of the current situation except over additional very bumpy roads. Any formula for the next steps in Egypt's political evolution will engender strong objections from some quarter.

What this means for U.S. policy toward Egypt is that there is less reason than ever to appear to be out front in proposing or championing particular political solutions—not that there ever is much reason for the United States to do that. Leading from behind rather than in front may not be a popular concept back home, but it has merit in describing a wise policy toward Egypt. Washington needs to recognize the limitations in its direct influence on the Egyptian situation and understand that what direct influence it has is best exercised in private—especially in urging the SCAF not to stall the process of political transformation. The United States particularly needs to avoid taking sides among contenders for power in the new Egypt. This means, among other things, avoiding the Islamophobia that infects much of the discourse in the United States about Egypt (and is even more apparent in discourse in Israel).

Beyond those things, the United States should proclaim the principles it considers important and relevant to the Egyptian situation. Proclaim them loudly and clearly, for sure, but stick with principles rather than getting into particular formulas for applying them, because any application would quickly stumble on some of the inherent tensions among the principles, laudable though they are individually. Those principles are: First, violence from any quarter, governmental or nongovernmental, is unacceptable. Second, Egypt should move toward greater popular sovereignty. Third, individual human rights and liberties are important, no matter who runs the government. And fourth, the United States looks forward to strong and cordial relations with whatever government emerges from the current political flux in Egypt.

In constructing a policy toward Egypt, the Obama administration must also contend, of course, with political competition back in the United States. When Republican candidates and office holders take a breather from exclaiming how tough they are on Iran, they may be thinking about how they can play a blame game about who lost Egypt. Fortunately, a good, principled posture toward Egypt shouldn't be bad politics. One hopes that even the Islamophobia will not be a winner in the long run.