In fact, this is one of those fortunate moments when the United States does not face a clear tradeoff between its moral sympathies and its strategic imperatives. For starters, Egypt is not a major oil producer like Saudi Arabia, so a shift in regime in Cairo will not imperil our vital interest in ensuring that Middle East oil continues to flow to world markets. By itself, in fact, Egypt isn’t a critical strategic partner. Yes, military bases there can be useful transit points when we intervene in the region, but the United States has other alternatives and military intervention isn’t something we should be eager to do anyway (remember Iraq?). Egypt is not as influential in the Arab world as it once was, in part due to the social and economic stagnation that has characterized the Mubarak era, and its recent efforts to mediate several on-going disputes have been unsuccessful. Furthermore, U.S. support for dictators like Mubarak has been one of al Qaeda’s major reasons for targeting the United States, as well as a useful recruiting tool (along with our unstinting support for Israel and our military presence in the Gulf). It is also one of the main reasons why many Arabs have a negative view of the United States. Viewed strictly on its own, the U.S. alliance with Egypt has become a strategic liability.
As a number of commentators have emphasized, the real reason the United States has backed Mubarak over the years is to preserve the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and to a lesser extent, because Mubarak shared U.S. concerns about Hamas and Iran. In other words, our support for Mubarak was directly linked to the “special relationship” with Israel, and the supposedly “strategic interest” involved was largely derivative of the U.S. commitment to support Israel at all costs. For those of us who think that the “special relationship” is bad for the U.S. and Israel alike, therefore, a change of government in Egypt is not alarming.
In fact, change in Cairo might not threaten Israel’s interests significantly, and might even help break the calcified diplomatic situation in the region. For starters, a post-Mubarak government is unlikely to tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, because such a move would immediately put it at odds with both the United States and Europe and bring Cairo few tangible benefits. Although ordinary Egyptians do feel strong sympathy for the Palestinians, the primary concern of those now marching in the streets is domestic affairs, not foreign policy. A new government will think long and hard about taking any steps that might cost it the current U.S. aid package, and the Egyptian military would be dead-set against any actions that would jeopardize the support it gets from Washington. Even in the worst case where the treaty did lapse, this would not create an existential threat to Israel. Why? Because Egypt’s military is no match for the IDF and Cairo’s capabilities would deteriorate further once U.S. military aid was cut off.
Of course, if the Egyptian government becomes more responsive to its population, we can expect it to be more critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its refusal to accept a viable two-state solution. It will also be less willing to collude with U.S.-backed policies such as the counter-productive and cruel siege of Gaza. In other words, we may be witnessing the birth pangs of an Egypt that it is a more like contemporary Turkey: neither hostile nor subservient, and increasingly seeking to chart its own course. And this might be precisely the sort of wake-up call that Israel needs, to help it realize that its long-term security does not lie solely in military strength or territorial control. Ultimately, its security must rest on being accepted by its neighbors, and the only way to do that is via a two-state solution with the Palestinians (as the 2002/2007 Saudi/Arab League peace plan envisioned).
To be sure, such a prospect is certain to alarm anyone who thinks that U.S. Middle East policy has been pretty much on-target for the past few decades. But the number of people who still believe that should be dwindling rapidly, when one considers the debacle in Iraq, the prolonged turmoil in Lebanon, Iran’s growing influence, the failure of the Oslo peace process, and the revolving door of failed U.S. Mideast policymakers, who are often wrong but never disqualified for appointment. For those of us who think that U.S. policy has been bad for just about everyone except our adversaries, the turmoil in Cairo is not a threat but an opportunity.