The U.S.-Egyptian Breakup

Washington's Limited Options in Cairo

With Hosni Mubarak's announcement yesterday that he would not seek a new term as president, the Mubarak era in Egypt came to an ignominious end. Although the Egyptian military may yet find a way to allow for a relatively graceful exit, Mubarak's historical legacy is sure to be colored by the very factors that led to his downfall: political alienation, economic dislocation, corruption, and the precipitous decline in Egypt's regional influence. After the chaos of this past week, not even his claim to have brought stability to Egypt will survive. 

Yet the seeds of Mubarak's demise were sowed long ago. Although he came to power promising reform and vowing not to seek more than one term, Mubarak quickly became enamored with the power of the presidency and saw himself as indispensable to Egypt's future. He had witnessed first hand the drawbacks of Gamal Abdel Nasser's experiments with socialism and Arab nationalism and Anwar Sadat's efforts to correct the excesses of both. Instead, Mubarak eschewed ideology for a bland pragmatism that emphasized "stability for the sake of development" -- hardly an appealing political vision. He built a small, narrow constituency for his rule among big business, the police, and the army and relied on force and the threat of violence to keep the population under control.

By the end, Mubarak's disdain for the Egyptian people was so complete that last November, when the opposition sought to establish a shadow parliament after stunningly fraudulent parliamentary elections, he smirked and declared before his rubber-stamp People's Assembly, "Let them have fun." 

The United States was not responsible for the inequity of Mubarak's rule, but it did enable and benefit from it. Mubarak was long Washington's man in Cairo: he kept open the Suez Canal, repressed the Islamists, and maintained peace with Israel. In return, the United States provided much for Egypt, contributing billions in economic assistance over the years to build up the country's infrastructure, agricultural technology, and public health programs. Yet this U.S. assistance, while certainly contributing to Egypt's development, also served to undermine the nationalist legitimacy of the regime. After all, how could Mubarak boast of Egyptian pride and ability when USAID employees were nestled in many government ministries?

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