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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Progressive Anxiety On Egypt

The substance of what’s happening in a turbulent Egypt right now is beyond the scope of this site. But the anxiety and ambivalence over U.S. policy that many progressives are feeling right now is of interest, and may only get more intense during this week’s potentially historic develpments.
The Obama administration is currently in the slow process of liquidating a policy of accomodation of a non-democratic Egypt that has existed for more than thirty years, through three Democratic and three Republican administrations. For progressives who strongly sympathize with the Egyptian protestors, and have embraced their now-realizable goal of the destruction of the repressive Mubarak regime, the tentativeness of the Obama administration’s reaction has been embarassing at best. For us oldsters, it does indeed feel an awful lot like the day-late-dollar-short reaction of the Carter administration to the Iranian revolution of 1979, though there’s been nothing like that administration’s steady embrace of the dictator up to and beyond the moment of his demise.
But it should be obvious that we have little idea of the Obama administration’s activities behind the scenes, and can’t really judge the wisdom or folly of its course of action until Egypt’s own course is determined. We can fully grasp, however, the potentially enormous stakes for the United States in what happens next, which, ironically, underlines the strategic position that has made it easy for Mubarak to shake down America for support and subsidies for so long.
To put it simply, a “bad” outcome in Egypt–whether it’s Mubarak surviving by savage repression, a civil war, or some sort of inherently unviable Kerensky-like successor government likely to give way to something worse–would blow up the Middle East in unpredictable ways, and could well plunge much of the entire planet into a second phase of global recession. The impact on oil prices alone of extended instability in the country that controls the Suez Canal could bring back to Americans a relic of the 1970s that has been all but forgotten: “stagflation,” the maddening, policy-paralyzing coexistence of powerful price inflation and high unemployment. So in a very real sense, Egypt could make pretty much irrelevant many of the domestic policy arguments Americans were having before the first demonstration in Cairo.
It’s tempting to turn on the tube and simply cheer for the unquestioned good guys in the Egyptian drama, the pro-democracy forces, and shake our heads in dismay at the apparent defensiveness and sometimes even cluelessness of administration officials. If Egypt transitions more or less seamlessly into a peaceful, secular multi-party democracy then it may well be time for some serious progressive soul-searching about our past complicity in the previous regime’s outrages. But this is not a television show, and the consequences of a false step by the Obama administration for regional peace and domestic prosperity–not to mention the democratic aspirations of the people of Egypt and the Middle East–are a lot more important than current ratings of its behavior in front of the cameras.

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