What Egypt Means for the US

Date Published:

Feb 3, 2011


What do the recent events in Egypt mean for the US? The answer is a lot more complicated than it might seem. Egypt is important to the US for a number of reasons. Topping the list is oil, and the flow of oil, for which the Suez Canal is an important transit conduit. There is no reason to believe that a successor to the Mubarak government would interrupt the flow of oil, but you could imagine events in the area that could interrupt the flow, and we’re seeing this concern reflected in the markets.

There is also the concern that what is happening in Egypt is contagious, and that it could lead to instability in other, seemingly analogous states—the most important of which is Saudi Arabia. There are regions in which the governments seem very sclerotic, the people running them seem old, the youth vote seems large, and the number of educated citizens who don’t seem adequately challenged seems to be growing. Such elements characterize quite a number of states in the region, including those that are important to the US for various reasons.

Egypt has been a major ally of the US when it comes to relations with Israel, where the resulting peace, though cold, has created a stable border, and is thus considered one of the great achievements of the last many decades. In the role of counterterrorism, Egypt has been a significant and cooperative ally on questions about Hamas, al-Qaida, or Hezbollah.

Finally, with respect to governance, Egypt is dealing with an autocratic regime that significantly restricts the political rights of the population. This has been a problem for the US, as it directly conflicts with American objectives and rhetoric. Nevertheless, such issues are of a lesser concern in the hierarchy of interests, as things like oil attract greater attention.

I suspect that peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel would be sustained. A new Egyptian government of any stripe will have so much to do that it will not want to take on any additional problems. On the other hand, Egypt’s current mix finds organized groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s recent statements have been more internationally acceptable, but traditionally they have had quite strong and different views with respect to Israel. As you can imagine, if a Muslim Brotherhood group emerges after whatever process of transition Egypt undergoes, such a group might maintain a contrary view.

The best way to think about the issue is to consider alternative futures. One possibility is that Mubarak and the current regime will survive. I’d say this is very unlikely, though, with only about a five to ten percent chance of happening.

A second possibility is that a transitional process will take place, resulting in an emerging democratic government. I’d say that this second alternative is the most hopeful, but not the most likely scenario.

Another scenario features a tumultuous process in which a more or less participatory and democratic system emerges. If this scenario were to play out, I would bet on the most organized groups emerging as leaders. In this case, the most organized group is the military, which means that we would see the emergence of a military-dominated regime with a civilian face. That would be a good outcome as far as the US is concerned. A variation of that scenario is the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could step up to take control of the government, an outcome that would present its own opportunities and risks.

The key idea that we should take away from this is that future developments are uncertain, and that it is entirely possible to describe an outcome that looks more like Iran —though I don’t think such an outcome is likely. Think about Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris until the Iranian revolution, Lenin going home to Russia in a single-carriage train. True, those situations weren’t exactly like the one happening now, but history reminds us that outcomes are often quite different from the ones people anticipate—and that looking at the aspirations that have spurred a revolution is hardly a good way to predict what the outcomes will actually be.