As events have unfolded in Egypt over the last two weeks, the U.S. position has been undergoing near constant revision. By the end of last week, however, the United States had apparently gotten ahead of the curve and was no longer subject to accusations of being merely reactive—and, worse, reacting a day behind the events on the ground. Over the weekend, the United States—and other Western governments—apparently settled on a position of supporting the immediate removal of Hosni Mubarak from power and the establishment of an interim government under the newly appointed Egyptian Vice President, Omar Suleiman. The protesters occupying Tahrir Square are unmoved by this proposition and Western support for it.
The appeal to Western governments of the staggered transition from Mubarak to a Mubarakite interim government to eventual elections is obvious. It promises the introduction of a measure of stability and certainty to a tumultuous situation that has upset U.S. foreign policy, flummoxed Israel, and contributed to steadily rising oil prices. Moreover, the apparent U.S. position follows a long history of U.S. policymakers pursuing stability. However, too often in the post-war era the pursuit of stability has come at the expense of U.S. values—as is likely the case here.
This long history of sacrificing values—democracy, liberty, freedom—for the sake of stability and ease of policymaking, has driven the U.S. to support autocratic regimes. It has also left many people with the indelible perception, rightly or wrongly, that the United States serves to oppress them—or at least support their oppressors—particularly in the Arab world.
This linkage between the United States and perceptions of oppression is one of the great strategic threats the United States faces. It has enabled radical Islamists to present an effective and largely unchallenged narrative.
The unrest in Egypt presents the United States with the opportunity to fundamentally reshape its perception in the Arab world. The simple act of lending the protesters in Tahrir Square full throated support is the first step along this path. Such support may not radically alter the fortunes of the protesters—Mubark is likely to go in the near term, and the Western-supported interim government is likely to come about regardless of Western support. However, the impact of the United States standing foursquare with the forces of democracy and liberty is likely to be regional and transformative.