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A Realist Policy for Egypt

Written on February 1, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Africa, Democracy & Human Rights, Foreign Policy, Middle East, News

Why Obama Should Tell Mubarak to Step Down

by Stephen M. Walt

Like nearly everyone-including, I assume, Hosni Mubarak himself — I’ve been surprised by the speed, scope and intensity of the upheaval in Egypt. As I write this, it’s still not clear whether Mubarak will remain in power. Nor do we know how far-reaching the changes might be if he were to leave. We should all be somewhat humble about our ability to forecast where things are headed, or what the future implications might be.

That caveat notwithstanding, I want to offer a realist interpretation of what these events mean for the United States, along with the basic prescription that follows from that analysis. And though it may surprise some of you, I think realism dictates that the United States encourage Mubarak to leave, and openly endorse the creation of a democratic government in Egypt.

Realists are often caricatured as being uninterested in democracy or human rights, and concerned solely with the distribution of power and a narrowly defined national interest. It is true that realists tend to see calculations about power as the most important factor shaping international politics, and they often see sharp tradeoffs between strategic interests and moral preferences. Yet domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one’s allies.

To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don’t have to worry about their allies’ internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.

Accordingly, far-reaching political reform in Egypt is an objective realists should support.   Even if Mubarak manages to cling to power, his regime has been fatally compromised. If he uses massive force to suppress the popular movement, it will be damaged even more. Mubarak himself is 83 years old, and even a successful act of repression won’t buy him (or his domestic allies) a lot of time. If the United States is seen as complicit in keeping him in power, it will solidify Arab anger and make our exalted rhetoric about democracy and human rights look like the basest hypocrisy. Read more…

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on January 31, 2011.

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