Friday, February 11, 2011

Our Observations on the Crisis in Egypt

This morning, half a world away, there is a dramatic crisis unfolding as millions of Egyptians protest against the ruling government and urge political reforms.

We've been riveted watching these events unfold live on television, not to mention the drama playing out second-by-second in social media. We're deeply concerned about what is happening and what it means. With that in mind, we have some observations we'd like to make.

First, we think it's important to put the crisis in Egypt into proper perspective. Right now the protests in Egypt are being hailed as a pro-democracy movement similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there are real differences, and it is still too early for us to know if we, as Americans, should be supportive of these changes. It remains unclear what forces are poised to take over in Egypt and whether they would be truly democratic or just different, not to mention whether they would be pro-Western. It is also unclear whether the ripple effect of these protests will be to encourage democratic growth in other areas of the Middle East, or if they will result in a crackdown by other totalitarian regimes in the area to secure their position against democratic resistance. Democracy is good, and we should champion it. But, there is real danger that Tahrir Square could become more like the Middle East's version of Tiananmen Square.

This cloud of uncertainty hanging over the crisis in Egypt demands extremely finessed and adept foreign policy on behalf of the United States as founding champion of the "Spirit of '76." This brings us to our second observation. We are disappointed by the lack of any meaningful response to this crisis by both American political parties.

On the one hand, President Obama and the Democrats appear to be disengaged, and perhaps even blindsided by events transpiring overseas. Publicly, the Obama administration has been unable to articulate more than basic statements expressing a desire for stability and for a transition to a more democratic government. The president said yesterday that "we are witnessing history unfold" – which is a fine statement for people like us sitting in our office, but a damningly inadequate statement by the de facto leader of the free world in the Oval Office. And, the private back channel that has traditionally been so important to American foreign policy appears not to be working this time around – and that's deeply disturbing. With all of the regional interests at stake, and for the sake of sending a powerful message to others around the world, the United States needs to do more than simply watch what's happening in the shadow of the pyramids.

On the other hand, Republicans appear to be largely oblivious to the situation, which is equally disappointing. Congress is focused on a bitter dispute right now, but it involves budget spending and abortion rights, not foreign policy. We do not understand why Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trial are not being more vocal about the flat-footed response from the Obama administration and why they have not sought to call for more aggressive action. It is a squandered political opportunity and a failure to fill an obvious leadership/political void.

Third, we think it's worth noting the significant role that electronic media are playing in the protests. Facebook and Twitter are being utilized extensively by the opposition movement, so much so that the government shut down the Internet. At the same time, journalists are finding themselves becoming part of the story they seek to cover, as they get embroiled in the protest and as protesters try to usurp the media to drive their message. And, as cable news junkies, we think it's ironic to note that the world is getting most of its news about this situation from the former host of 'The Mole' (Anderson Cooper) and the former judge on 'America's Got Talent' (Piers Morgan).

Sadly, the crisis in Egypt is not a reality show. It is an immediate crisis that deserves the focused attention of the United States. There is so much at stake for Americans, not to mention the Egyptian people. Egypt controls the Suez Canal, which is of vital strategic interest and serves as a gateway for the flow of oil worldwide. Egypt is also one of few regional allies for the United States and Israel. Our foreign policy must be designed to preserve this relationship and to use this as an opportunity to promote new ties in the Middle East. Right now, this appears to be in peril, and we appear to be endangering relationships with other nations, most notably Saudi Arabia. We need to do more to manage this crisis and promote a desirable outcome.

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