What Obama Can Do to Save Egypt

We can't bring democracy, but the Egyptian military can -- if we make it worth their while


When President Obama appeared before cameras on Friday night to discuss the events in Egypt, he was careful to throw his weight behind neither President Hosni Mubarak nor the protesters seeking his ouster, saying only that "the future will be determined by the Egyptian people" -- not, that is, by the White House. By Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was suggesting that it was time for Mubarak's 29 years of savagely dictatorial rule to end. She called for "an orderly transition" toward a "democratic participatory government" -- in other words, an election, which the deeply hated Mubarak would be all but guaranteed to lose.

As much as the U.S. would like to see protesters succeed in replacing Mubarak with a democracy, an Egyptian revolution, just like any revolution, would have to be organic and internal to be legitimate and successful. By so much as endorsing a particular opposition leader, the Obama administration risks tainting the entire process with its interference, not to mention dooming whomever they endorse. The U.S. has a 17 percent favorability rating in Egypt; not even Pakistan's is lower. So the U.S. would seem to have no good options for aiding the Egyptian democratic movement it would so like to succeed. But there is one way that Obama might help steer Egypt away from the brink of chaos and toward democracy.

The U.S. sends about $1.2 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. The tanks resting in Cairo's streets, the fighter jets that buzzed Tahrir Square on Sunday, perhaps even the officers' salaries are all somewhat reliant on the U.S. not revoking its aid. That's exactly what White House Press Secretary subtly threatened on Friday, telling a reporter, "We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days."

Egypt is a close U.S. ally, but the Egyptian military is especially close. It often coordinates directly with the Pentagon, where several senior Egyptian officers happened to be visiting when protests first broke out last week. The U.S. and Egyptian militaries hold massive joint exercises every other year under the name Operation Bright Star. For years, Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, whom Mubarak appointed on Saturday as the country's first vice president since 1981, served as what the New Yorker describes as "the main conduit between the United States and Mubarak."

Now that the military occupies Egypt's major cities and has taken the place of the now-absent police, it, perhaps more than the protester or Mubarak himself, stands to decide the country's fate. Whether it suppresses the protesters, as Mubarak would surely like, or joins those protesters in forcing Mubarak out, the 450,000-man Egyptian Army could probably end the country's deadlock in hours. So far, it has only protected city centers from looting and hedged somewhat in favor of the protesters, mostly through shows of general support and a refusal to crack down. But eventually someone in Egypt will have to act, and it will probably be the military.

As Michael Wahid Hanna explained at TheAtlantic.com, the military will ultimately do whatever best serves its own interests. That it has so far failed to act suggests that its leadership isn't sure how to measure the potential risks and rewards of giving Mubarak his crackdown, seizing power in a coup, or ousting Mubarak to set up a transitional, non-military government until elections can be held. The final choice on that list is of course the preferred option for Obama and the Egyptian people. Anything else risks only setting Egypt back. But the most attractive option to Egypt's generals may be to simply take power themeslves, just as their predecessors did in the 1952 military coup that established the current regime.

This is where the U.S. can play a role. So far, the military has behaved responsibly. By clearly tying that $1.2 billion in annual aid to specific conditions -- use live fire on protesters, for example, and the generals can kiss their U.S.-funded villas goodbye -- the Obama administration can strongly discourage bad behavior. But that's not going to be enough to get the military on board with democracy, which would almost certainly lead to it losing much of its vast political power. To deter the military from taking over again, the U.S. will likely have to threaten withdrawing every cent of its aid package. Suleiman is already within striking distance of Mubarak's job. It will take a very strong disincentive to restrain him.

Clinton publicly warned the military against a coup on Sunday, saying that the U.S. explicitly opposes a "military dictatorship." However, Clinton contradicted Gibbs' early comment, saying that there is "no discussion as of this time about cutting off any aid." While its possible the discrepancy is due to a miscommunication or just unclear phrasing, it's also possible that Gibb's statement was true when he said it and Clinton's statement was true when she said it. This would mean that something happened between Friday and Sunday that led the administration to drop its threats of "reviewing" aid spending. The fact that the military's behavior has been impeccably peaceful and responsible in that time period suggests that dropping the aid threat may be part of ongoing negotiations between the Obama administration and the Egyptian military. If that's the case, it's a sign that the White House understands it can use that aid money to promote good behavior by the military and deter bad behavior.

The greatest challenge will be convincing the military leadership that a truly democratic Egypt is within its interests. That's no small task, given that either a coup or a crackdown would leave it with more power. It's not clear if the Egyptian military would prefer to keep the aid money and lose power under a democracy or to lose the aid money but keep, or even increase, its power. In the end, it may take actually increasing the already outlandish U.S. aid package to convince the generals. And it still might not work. But if there is a way for Obama to guide Egypt from its violent deadlock to the promise of Nile democracy, this may be it.

Photo by Pete Souza/White House