As the revolution rapidly unfolds in Egypt, many are looking to the United States to take the lead on the international diplomatic response. Europe, however, unlike the US, has more to gain and is better suited to take advantage of this opportunity, to actively promote democratization in Egypt.
Across the streets of Cairo, Egyptians are cleaning up the mess created in the aftermath of their historic revolution that deposed the 30 year authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak. Long after the streets have been swept the ripple effects of this decisive moment in history will be felt, not only in Egypt but indeed across the wider Middle Eastern region and in the foreign policy objectives for governments around the world. Actions of both the US and European leaders were decidedly ambiguous during the 18 day Tahrir Square protests. While Mubarak’s thuggery offensive demonstrated the true colors of his regime, President Obama clung to the phrase ‘orderly transition’. Meanwhile his European contemporaries parroted the same response. It was a mistake for the world’s leaders to play such a weak strategy.
This was a chance for the Obama administration to make its mark on US foreign policy by giving their full support to the pro-democracy protestors in Egypt; but alas the fear of the Egypt’s Islamist bogeymen endangered this possibility, so instead we were left with a decidedly confused message emerging from Washington. To be fair to Mr. Obama, his situation allows him very little room to maneuvers. Historic US interests in the region leave the President treading a difficult tightrope. He must look on cautiously at how the Egyptian revolution will be played out due to a number of constraining factors. Firstly, the US must be worried about the precarious peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Seen as the one of its most important foreign policy victories in the past 40 years, Mr. Obama must be careful not to appear supportive of any Egyptian political players who might revise the Camp David Peace Accords. Israel will not look on lightly if the Obama administration is seen to be on friendly terms with Egypt’s Muslim Brothers. Secondly, Obama has to give in to American interests in Egypt and the importance of stability in the region. Stability is the core of US foreign policy strategy over the last three decades of Mubarak’s rule. America looks through the prism of stability when it conceives of its attitudes towards Egypt. Stability is why America gives Egypt about $2 billion each year in economic and military aid. It is also the main reason for President Obama’s inability to play a freer and more forceful role in the cause for democratization in the Middle East.
But not all is lost. Things are very different for European policymakers. The same constraints are not there. There is no Pax EU as there is a Pax Americana. The situation for European leaders is an opportunity and not a curve ball to be dealt with, as it is for its US contemporaries. Key European leaders, Sarkozy, Cameron and Merkel can take Egypt’s Revolution as the starting point of a new era of democratization across the Middle East and a chance to create a new foreign policy strategy. Firstly, this is a chance to break free from the damaging divisions of Iraq in the last decade. It is a time to make a move towards a united stance on democratization in the region. In this Europe has a freer hand then Obama and it must utilize this.
Not only will this enable the EU to strengthen internal order, with the cracks of EU disunity following the Lisbon Treaty debacle still evident, but it can also give EU governments the possibility of reshaping internal difficulties regarding the Islamic Diasporas across Europe. Any promotion of democracy in the Arab world cannot avoid an encounter with some form of Islamism and in this Europe has failed to distinguish between different currents of political Islamist groups. Not all groups bearing the name “Islamic” are part Iranian theocratic mullahs, or are indeed are followers of Osama bin Laden’s jihadist aspirations. Dialogue with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the post Mubarak Egyptian political process could aid a better understanding into democratic Islamists. Lessons could be learned to facilitate Europe’s internal dealings with its ever growing Islamic populations. Instead of calls for the failure of multiculturalism in their countries, the new democratized Egyptian political scene could herald in a new dawn for Europe’s internal workings.
Europe needs to carve out a distinctively different political strategy from that of the US. It must use its trading clout in Egypt as a carrot on which to demand respect for human rights and the rule of law, whilst encouraging the growth of an empowered civil society to keep future Egyptian governments accountable to the democratic process. Now, there is talk of a new EU “instrument” to provide funds, technical and legal support to help Egypt stage free elections by September at the latest. The EU has been expanding to the east over the last decade. Now is the time for it to grasp this opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with a new democratic Islamist voice, demonstrated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Europe should be well-placed to take up this task: after all, many of those running eastern and central Europe in 2011 were the revolutionaries of 1989.