Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Egypt’s Revolt and the American Model

by Ed Husain
January 26, 2012

Demonstrators gather at Tahrir square during a protest marking the first anniversary of Egypt's uprising in Cairo (Suhaib Salem/Courtesy Reuters). Demonstrators gather at Tahrir square during a protest marking the first anniversary of Egypt's uprising in Cairo (Suhaib Salem/Courtesy Reuters).


In the Wall Street Journal today I argue that American influence in Egypt and beyond is not limited to backing tyrants. The soft power of the United States remains as vibrant today as it was in years past.

Young Arabs were inspired by American presidential democracy, and not China or Russia. However, the desire to force Arabs to recognize Israel as “a Jewish state” (rather than another state in the region) risks creating premature blowback, and undermines U.S. influence.

The full article appears here:

Upon landing at Cairo’s international airport, I see a billboard that quotes none other than Barack Obama saying: “American young people need to grow up more like Egyptian youngsters.” Thus one year after their revolution do Egyptians bolster their newfound post-Mubarak pride through association with an American president. At bookshops across Egypt I find bestselling guidebooks on how to pass entrance tests for American universities. It’s a jarring contrast, then, to return to JFK airport and see such popular titles as “The Post-American World,” representing the fashionable tendency among U.S. political elites to talk down American standing in the Middle East.

Granted, it is necessary to analyze America’s influence in the world, but it is quite another matter to almost campaign for a less powerful America, believing that somehow this spells progress. I am not an American, but I firmly believe that, on balance, American power is a force for good in the world. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was right to remind us repeatedly in Britain that the modern world is led by a free nation, a democracy, and not Russia or China.

Yet it’s American conventional wisdom to believe that the fall of Arab dictators, particularly Egypt’s, weakens American leverage in the Middle East. And this thinking risks becoming self-fulfilling prophecy unless the U.S. government finds its backbone and recognizes that U.S. power is not limited to backing tyrants. The current trajectory—of dancing around developments, leading from behind and expressing defeatist thinking—needs to stop.

Egyptians hold giant national and Syrian flags during a rally in Tahrir Square on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the country’s revolt against the Mubarak regime.

Egypt’s military government detects this American weakness, which is why it recently had the audacity to raid the offices of several American nongovernmental organizations. These were not obscure shops but the federally funded National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. The military also raided a German NGO. In response, the Germans immediately summoned the Egyptian ambassador. Egyptian democracy activists predicted that the U.S. would do the same, or at least issue a powerful condemnation from the White House. Neither happened.

Sensing the indignation and expectations among Egyptian revolutionaries on Twitter, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted, “We call on Egyptian government to end harassment of NGO staff as well as return all property.” I responded by challenging the embassy: “Then what?”

Officials answered by asking me what should be done. This lack of confidence, fear of offending, and inability to take a stance stems from the default belief in American weakness and decline. I tweeted back to the officials that the U.S. government should ask its military allies to return to their barracks and cease killing protesters—and that it should tie these demands to U.S. aid. Yes, that small matter of $1.3 billion annually, $39 billion to date.

U.S. aid to countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, and trade and security arrangements with countries such as Saudi Arabia, all give America leverage. Washington doesn’t need to regularly remind its allies of these arrangements or use these tools bluntly. “Soft power,” wrote Harvard’s Joseph Nye, is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” But to use this attraction, the U.S. government must believe in itself, project confidence, and realize that, despite left-wing propaganda, America remains hugely attractive across the Middle East.

The Arab revolutionaries did not look to China or Russia for a model of government. They looked to four-year presidential terms, inspired directly by American democracy. Islamist leaders such as Tunisia’s Mohamed Ghannouchi condemn French secularism but highlight American accommodation of religion as a model of a secular state that is less hostile to religion. Across the Arab world, satellite dishes face west. Hollywood films, McDonald’s, Starbucks, jeans, baseball caps, Facebook and Twitter are the widespread norm.

Even those Egyptians who shout anti-American claptrap—the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi cousins—crave meetings and photo-ops with visiting American politicians, such as Sen. John Kerry recently. They seek an American stamp of approval that bestows legitimacy, modernity, and association with global power. Without it, they remain pariahs.

In the many meetings I have had with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Middle Eastern Islamists over the past year, they show animosity toward the U.S. only with regard to Israel. It’s clear that Israel won’t enjoy the relations with Egypt that it did under Hosni Mubarak. There is no stamina for war with Israel, but this generation of Arabs won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Trying to force them to do so will not only fail but risks compromising American influence. It is wiser to allow for the passage of time, and help the Palestinians realize their dream of a dignified, free state.

In his important 2004 book “The Case for Democracy,” the former Soviet dissident and Israeli diplomat Natan Sharansky predicted the rise of democratic forces in Arab countries. As Egypt and other Arab nations experiment with democracy, the U.S. cannot be seen to be weak, nor craving for yesteryear, but instead must support the people’s cries of freedom.


  • Posted by Isabelle

    Well, I must say you write very well. In addition you are an idealist and probably an academic that can’t quite see what’s happening in Egypt because your clouded by the shiny dust of the Revolution.

    Cries for freedom, huh? 90% of your people chose the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist. People that are vocal opponents of America.

    Are we Americans really to believe that you want a political system like our own. Did you fail to see that one of the foundations of our system is separation of religion and state. From what I see the Egyptian chose religious Islamist to lead the pack.

    Deep down, all Americans know that our nation has done great things in the small time we have been around. I’m proud of my ancestors for the accomplishments we have made. I forgive them for their faults because we as a people keep trying to be better. Some of them just like to downplay it so they don’t feel so bad that we are a successful nation. Yes, you are right those people are hurting us. But we have people not committed to our nation – taking jobs away, corruption growing, scandals, polluting.

    Therefore, It will hurt us to continue having friends like Egypt that mock us at every turn. Given our failures in the Middle East, in general, this will be hard times for us to hold our chins up while the picked leaders in Egypt taunt and spit at us. It will be even harder to justify the American government sending a massive amount money to Egypt whose chosen leaders belittles us at every turn. Even if they secretly like us, what will it matter. I had great hope that the whole Middle East would become a great ally and prosper into a fragrant bloom alongside of this. My hopes are dwindled and were dashed when the Egyptian chose the pariah of the Islamist. They will grow like a cancer that destroys your economy. Israel should be the least of your worries. She could have been a great business ally. We Americans were paying to you be her friend and do business. I don’t want any more money to a country that chose Islamist. I won’t be alone. How can I? I have multiple degrees in higher education and I can’t even find a job here in America. No more money to Islamist that throw stones at us. We have become a tired people; dealing with the Middle East was a challenge that wore us out and financially crippled us. My guess is that we will wash our hands of it all soon. It is only Israel begging us to help Egypt be their ally, because the American people are demanding an end to the aid. No one can blame us. We now have our own problems.

  • Posted by Alex Rowell

    The above commenter, Isabelle, is right to point out that secularism is a foundational pillar of the entire American system, and one that Egyptians have overwhelmingly rejected. It’s quite clear that the model Egyptians, as well as all other ‘Arab Spring’ revolutionaries so far have drawn from is not America but Turkey.

    I disagree with both of you, however, on the Israel question. Isabelle implies that Egyptians should embrace Israel as a “great” ally, forgetting that the greatest casualties in both the 1948 and 1967 wars were suffered by Egypt. It’s ludicrous to ask Egyptians to normalise relations with an aggressor that to this day occupies the territories of its Arab brethren.

    For this same reason, I disagree with Husain that America’s “leverage” is as strong as ever. As Robert Fisk put it in his article ‘Who cares in the Middle East what Obama says?’ (Independent, 30 May 2011):

    “Obama’s failure to support the Arab revolutions until they were all but over lost the US most of its surviving credit in the region. Obama was silent on the overthrow of Ben Ali, only joined in the chorus of contempt for Mubarak two days before his flight, condemned the Syrian regime – which has killed more of its people than any other dynasty in this Arab “spring”, save for the frightful Gaddafi – but makes it clear that he would be happy to see Assad survive, waves his puny fist at puny Bahrain’s cruelty and remains absolutely, stunningly silent over Saudi Arabia. And he goes on his knees before Israel. Is it any wonder, then, that Arabs are turning their backs on America, not out of fury or anger, nor with threats or violence, but with contempt? It is the Arabs and their fellow Muslims of the Middle East who are themselves now making the decisions.”