As I write this, Egypt is a mess. In fact, by the time this piece is published I have to wonder about the government Egypt will have. I imagine some Americans are surprised that we should care. It is true that any government likely to emerge is unlikely to conduct an amphibious assault at Savannah anytime soon. Nonetheless, in recent years the Egyptian government has provided more help than hurt to our interests. This uncertainty should give pause to all of us.
The United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars per year of economic aid to Egypt. I’ve seen several reports saying we provided $1.5 billion last year, but that’s economic and military aid combined. The USAID web site shows that the United States has provided $28 billion since 1975. This aid often is targeted on specific needs such as agriculture, education and health initiatives. We are not talking chump change by any means.
Our economic aid is intended to help the Egyptian people improve their standard of living and that the Egyptian government remains a stabilizing factor in the region. However, with the depressed economy and size of the population, many Egyptians live in poverty. Those folks aren’t happy and they have been showing their displeasure with their repressive government. We don’t characterize President Hosni Mubarak as a dictator, because his government has many of the trappings of a democracy, but there is little belief that Egypt is a democracy in our terms, such as with true freedom of expression. The State Department website characterizes the government as a republic.
Potentially of greater concern with regard to American aid is the military assistance we have sent to Egypt. The State Department website shows that the United States provides $1.3 billion annually to Egypt as a result of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. So in addition to the economic aid we have given, the Egyptian military now has F4 and F16 aircraft, M60A3, and M1 tanks, as well as Apache helicopters and a variety of other armored vehicles and modern weapons thanks to us. That’s a lot of stuff in the hands of a government that is shaky at the moment.
As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have to worry about Egypt invading us, but I imagine Israel is more than a little concerned right now. If the result of this unrest is a government hostile to Israel, then all of this hardware becomes a threat to a longstanding ally of ours.
Besides a potential threat to Israel, we’ve been hearing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a contender for leadership in Egypt. Since al Qaida’s roots lead back to the Muslim Brotherhood, their popping out on top would not be good for us. This contentious situation reminds me a lot of Iran in 1978 and 1979, in the sense that if the Muslim Brotherhood managed to seize power we might face another theocratic enemy. That certainly would complicate relations with people and nations in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region.
This mess in Egypt could wind up as a defining moment for President Obama. When Jimmy Carter became president, I doubt he or many other people thought that Iran was going to define his presidency. I sure didn’t think so. Nonetheless, his willingness to let the situation run its course then had the unfortunate byproduct of American hostages, the failed attempt to rescue them at Desert One, and our nation’s weakness in the face of a new foe that had little apparent military capability. There is little doubt that this situation hurt President Carter’s re-election bid.
This is not an easy situation for President Obama to resolve. He cannot afford to back a loser, whether that is Mubarak or any group trying to replace him. President Obama also cannot afford to be seen as non-player in this drama. If he does nothing, he runs the risk of the loss of a friend in the Middle East. A threat to Israel could result. Backing Mubarak alone, even if he wins, does little to promote freedom and democracy in Egypt.
This is not an easy one and frankly, we should all hope that the president makes good decisions right now regardless of our political leanings. We really do not want to have President Obama make a bad decision, and he has access to information and resources the rest of us do not have. I wish the president well with this decision because an error will haunt us for many years, long after the current administration is in power.