Egypt is a mustgo destination for American specialists on international affairs these days. A number of them stopped by the American University in Cairo recently to offer their insights on the Arab Spring and the Obama administration’s response to it.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recalled various conversations with White House officials amid the protests that overthrew the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. Ignatius learned that President Barack Obama opposed referring to the events as the “Arab Spring” because “he believed it implied that it’s going to end with music and flowers and dancing, and we don’t know that.” Ignatius hailed both Obama’s appointment of Anne W. Patterson, “probably our best diplomat,” as the post-revolution U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Washington’s efforts to support the Egyptian economy despite an ailing economy at home.
Martin S. Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, spoke of a seismic shift in the “security-versus-democracy balance” that has anchored American policy in the Middle East over the past six decades. Proof, he said, came when Deputy U.S. Secretary of State William Burns held talks in Cairo with Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohamed Morsi. The meeting ended Washington’s longstanding ban on dealing with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indyk explained, “He [President Obama] recognizes that the Egyptian people have spoken, and that he should try to focus on what we imagine the people of Egypt want: jobs, a clean, transparent and accountable government, respect for minority rights, and the democratic rules of the game.”
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman expects Islamist parties to cool their rhetoric now that they have won seats in Egypt’s first democratic election for parliament. “They have never had to make hard choices because they have never been in power,” Friedman said. “They were elected on promises, and four years from now they will be judged on their performance.”
Speaking at a forum on “Iran and the Arab Spring,” Gary Sick, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, cautioned that any external effort to change the Iranian regime would be counterproductive. “Regime change is essential, but if it gets done it’s going to have to get done by the Iranians,” said Sick. “If we go in and, in our usual clumsy way, try to overthrow this regime, we’re going to strengthen it.” The reality, he said, is that “The real regime change that took place in Egypt wasn’t done by Washington and the regime change in Syria will not be done by Washington.” A lesson from the Arab Spring, according to Sick: “You don’t need Washington if you really decide you’re going to get rid of your government.”