Obama giving his June 2009 speech in Cairo, as seen on televisions in Tel Aviv. (Gil Cohen Magen / Courtesy Reuters)

At first glance, the political situation in Egypt today looks bleak: The liberal revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been marginalized, the Coptic minority is under threat, and uncertainty clouds the future of the three-decade-old peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Last week's protests in Cairo -- set against the backdrop of spreading anti-American unrest in the region -- have stirred anxieties in Washington. Republican leaders, backed by conservative commentators, argue that if President Barack Obama had only done things differently over the past few years, the United States would be in a far better position to secure its interests in Egypt. Speaking about Egypt, Libya, and Yemen in the wake of last week's tragic events, Richard Williamson, a high-level foreign policy adviser to the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told The Washington Post: "The respect for America has gone down, there's not a sense of American resolve, and we can't even protect sovereign American property." Williamson went on to summarize Obama's handling of relations with Cairo in two words: "amateur hour."

But such criticisms overstate both the dangers of Egypt's new Islamist government as well as Washington's ability to shape events in the Middle East. In fact, whether by luck, sound judgment, or a combination of the two, Obama has deftly handled the U.S. response to the Egyptian revolution. The most recent evidence: a $1 billion debt forgiveness package for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's government, even though its delivery might now be delayed due to the recent protests. And that comes alongside a $3 billion aid deal from the International Monetary Fund that the White House helped to assemble. Setting aside the dire headlines about protests for a moment, these financial moves establish a solid foundation for U.S.-Egypt relations far into the future.

The post-revolutionary period in Egypt has offered no easy policy choices for the United States. Washington has had to balance its support for Egypt's burgeoning democracy with its desire for stability. Several incidents, such as last year's attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the arrest of 16 American nongovernmental organization employees in February, have presented serious challenges to the White House. Nevertheless, the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have exercised appropriate caution and restraint. This judicious policy, maintained even in the face of provocation, will continue to be crucial in the uncertain and still chaotic climate of the Middle East. Of course, caution should not mean weakness or the failure to mobilize U.S. power when it is needed. Moving forward, the key will be the manner in which this power is utilized. Prudent, pragmatic engagement, which attends to Egyptian sensibilities without compromising essential U.S. interests, should be the model for the next administration's approach to Egypt.

REACTING TO REVOLUTION

At the beginning of 2011, the Obama administration faced two main problems in Egypt. Former President Hosni Mubarak had been a faithful U.S. ally, serving as a pillar of stability in the Middle East. But at the same time, once the Tahrir protests began in earnest, it was clear that history was passing the regime by. The foremost policy challenge in Washington was how to embrace change while maintaining order.

The Israelis, the Saudis, and Republicans in the U.S. Congress argued that Mubarak's departure could unleash chaos, but there was actually very little room for Washington to maneuver. Besides the impracticalities of direct action, previous policy statements tied Washington's hands. As far back as June 2005, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a speech in Cairo stating that the United States would endorse any democratic movement in the Middle East. Obama echoed that promise when he traveled to Cairo himself four years later.

Against the backdrop of sweeping change in regimes throughout North Africa and protests starting to emerge elsewhere, it would have been foolhardy for Washington to stumble into a new crisis in Egypt on the wrong side of the political divide. And particularly as it became clear that the Egyptian army was prepared to ensure continuity, Obama decided, however reluctantly, to let the Mubarak regime go. It was a decision that launched U.S. diplomacy on an unpredictable trajectory but one that was consonant with the United States' oft-stated preference for democratic change over illiberal stability.

The problems came later, for the Egyptian army command, in its efforts to preserve the political tenor of the Mubarak years, had little patience for genuine democracy. But to its credit, the Obama administration avoided blunt intervention. Instead, it relied on criticism, persuasion, and pressure on the generals in Cairo. (Meanwhile, the White House backed the NATO intervention in Libya, showing that it was still willing to use hard power.) This mixture of pragmatism and caution has been the hallmark of the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring. Recognizing that domestic upheavals were reshaping sclerotic autocratic regimes that ultimately did not serve U.S. security interests -- and that, by and large, direct intervention would create more problems than it solved -- the administration tried to adjust to change adroitly, provided its essential concerns were not threatened.

From May 2011 onwards, relations between Egypt's military and its public worsened. When violent clashes broke out, Washington condemned the military's human rights abuses and pushed for elections so that power could be handed over to a democratically elected government, even though it became increasingly clear that the winner of such a contest would be unlikely to satisfy U.S. tastes. Indeed, Islamists won the parliament, and Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president.

However unpalatable these prospects may have seemed at first to Western capitals, Morsi has been a surprisingly nimble diplomat. He has renewed contacts, if not formal relations, with Iran, even as he has condemned President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. He has assured Israel that its peace treaty is safe, and, with the Israeli government's approval, he dispatched Egyptian troops to the Sinai Peninsula to deal with extremists there. Finally, he has reassured Saudi Arabia that Egypt will remain a stalwart of the alliance of moderate, pro-Western Arab countries. Apart from Morsi's overtures to Iran, Washington has had little to complain about.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The question is what happens next. Despite positive signals of late, Cairo may not be able to sustain its diplomatic moderation indefinitely. Morsi's assurances aside, the future of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is murky. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood's hostility toward Israel has been both long-standing and inveterate -- and that hostility chimes well with popular sentiments inside Egypt itself. A new Israeli show of force -- as in an initiative similar to the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, or a preemptive Israeli move against Syria or Lebanon -- would force Cairo to make a formal response, which could include renouncing the treaty with Israel. Egyptian public opinion would likely demand such a move, making it difficult for Morsi to resist, despite the potential threat to all-important U.S. aid.

It is also uncertain whether the Islamists who run the Egyptian government will retain their democratic bona fides. The country's disgruntled secularists certainly fear that this will not be the case, because, rightly or wrongly, they believe that the Islamists' success foreshadows an Islamic dictatorship and a crackdown on personal freedoms. And the Islamists will continue to battle remnants of Egypt's old order. Even if Morsi remains president after the new constitution emerges later this year (which might necessitate new elections), the Egyptian army could still try to replace him by force, should it feel that its economic interests were threatened. After all, the preservation of these interests was part of the implicit bargain struck by the president when he restructured the military command in August.

How can the next administration in Washington handle such uncertainty? In the short term, at least, whoever occupies the White House for the coming four years will be able to do very little. The political complexion of the Middle East, and especially North Africa, has been tinged distinctly green over the past year. The rise of Islamism requires a new diplomatic tool set for both the United States and its European allies, as they learn to interact with unfamiliar political players who are still figuring out how to manipulate their newfound power. It will require a delicate and sensitive hand -- the continuation, in short, of the pragmatism, restraint, and caution that the Obama administration has practiced over the past 18 months.

There are fundamental principles that the next administration -- whether it is led by Obama or Romney -- should never compromise its support for: the democratic process, the rule of law, and individual and minority rights. But firmness on principle does not mean policy by diktat. The United States should not forsake its material means of pressuring Cairo, such as linking U.S. military and development aid to specific benchmarks. Yet Washington should not forget that over the last two years, the Egyptian people have struggled to recover self-respect, and they will not take kindly to high-handed instruction. For Washington, quiet intervention, away from the limelight, will likely achieve more in Cairo than public confrontation.

That will require close contact with Egypt's new rulers and the capacity to have a discreet word with the remodeled army leadership when needed. Washington, of course, will continue to exercise considerable leverage in the country; but going forward, the character of Egypt's behavior toward the United States will depend largely on the diplomatic sensitivity that Washington shows Cairo. With his bluster about Iran, pledges to draw Washington even closer to Israel, and clumsy foreign policy rhetoric throughout the campaign season, Romney seems to lack the necessary subtlety to manage U.S.-Egyptian relations. And the irony is that a failure in this arena would be of great harm not only to the United States but to Israel, as well.

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  • GEORGE JOFFÉ is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.
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