After Tunisia: Obama's Impossible Dilemma in Egypt

Could the U.S. find itself on the wrong side of history?

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The Middle East just got more complicated for the Obama administration. The January 14 popular revolt in Tunisia, the first ever to topple an Arab dictator, has called into question a basic premise of U.S. policy in the Middle East - that repressive regimes, however distasteful, are at least stable. They can also be counted on to support key American interests, which is part of why the U.S. provides them with substantial assistance. Tunisia was considered one of the least likely to fall, but it fell. Across the region, opposition groups, hoping to repeat Tunisia's successes, are emboldened and increasingly active. For the first time, they know what change looks like. More importantly, they now believe it can happen in their own countries. But in the growing battle between Arab autocrats and popular oppositions, the U.S. is finding itself torn between the reliable allies it needs and the democratic reformers it wants.

Nowhere is the U.S. dilemma more urgent than in Egypt. Predictions that a Tunisia-like uprising will soon topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are premature - the Egyptian regime, with its well-paid military, is likely to be more unified and more ruthless than its Tunisian counterparts were. But whether an Egyptian revolt succeeds or fails, we can be sure that one will be attempted. The first test of opposition strength will come today, when thousands are expected to participate in what organizers are calling "day of revolution."

This raises a thorny question for the U.S.: If tens of thousands take to the streets - and stay on the streets - what will it do? The U.S. is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid. In other words, if the army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the Egyptian military is "not there to project power, but to protect the regime."

The U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests. Tunisia, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, was expendable. The revolt was spontaneous and leaderless. Islamists - mostly in prison or in London - were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Tunis or Sidi Bouzid. But if Egypt is lost, it will be lost to an uprising that includes some of the most anti-American opposition groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood - by far the largest opposition force in the country.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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