Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt, Yemen, and the United States of Awkward

Three big stories this morning from the Middle East:

Mohamed el-Baradei, former head of the IAEA and presidential candidate in the last elections is en route back to Egypt for tomorrow's protests. His arrival is important for two reasons. The first is that he is shaping himself as a figurehead for regime change, often seen a critical component of success in such movements. Second, Baradei has strong international legitimacy as the IAEA chief who oversaw UN response to the Iranian nuclear program and urged caution. Politically, el-Baradei does not enjoy the same popularity within Egypt, but the international community is likely to support him, which makes a difference.

Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood has stated it will participate in Friday's protests. It does not intend to play a leadership role but it will mobilize supporters. This is a big deal because it represents an established political trend in Egypt fusing with the popular protests. Some fear exists that the Brotherhood will use the protests as a springboard into a leadership role. The concern is warranted but it is more likely than not that the Brotherhood will remain out of the spotlight for fear of political retribution by the Mubarak regime.

Thirdly, large protests are taking place in Yemen against President Saleh who has held power in Yemen for over 32 years. Yemen is already an unstable country with a serious insurgency problem, and these protests are not likely to help the governments efforts to reign in insurgency.

What all of these events share in common is that they put the United States in a rather awkward position. Given that Egypt's government is the number 2 recipient of US foreign aid, and that Yemen has become a major US focus for combatting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it will have to respond very carefully to events. Secretary Clinton's tenuous statements may play as wishy-washy in the Western press, but they are smart policy. Supporting the opposition or the protesters in either Egypt or Yemen is a risky strategy that could harm US interests in the region. At the same time, supporting the dictatorial regimes of Middle Eastern states flies in the face of democratic and liberal ideas that are the foundation of the United States and its foreign policy. The State Department and the Obama administration have successfully walked the careful middle ground (Marc Lynch concurs re: Obama). But they will have to continue to do so in the coming days.

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