As Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak was a key U.S. ally for three decades, but his sudden departure from power has shaken the fundamentals of U.S. strategy in the Middle East, leaving some analysts to believe now is the time to rethink those policies.
When Egyptian protesters took to the streets Jan. 25, they created a deep fissure in the U.S. strategy for the region. By the time Mubarak finally relinquished his grip on power, some 18 days later, long-held policies that Washington believed help ensure stability in the region had been upended.
Thomas Pickering, a career ambassador now with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, says this is the time and the opportunity to rethink those decades-old policies.
"I think it is true that we're beginning to look at stability in a different context," he said. "Stability in the short term may be authoritarian regimes, but Egypt has shown that doesn't hold true for the long term."
Pickering says what the administration should do immediately is focus on the other autocratic regimes in the region.
"What has happened in Egypt helps to reinforce our point to people in governments that haven't reformed, that we could call authoritarian in that sense, that it may be the wave of the future and they better think about it," he said.
The U.S. gave unwavering support to Mubarak because, among other things, he backed the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord, considered critical to stabilizing the region. Analysts say that treaty and other U.S.-backed policies enraged Egyptians and many others in the Middle East.
Arab Public Opinion
Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, says those voices were muffled for many years by Mubarak's regime. He says the U.S. would listen to Egyptian officials instead of the people, but that will have to change given the scale of the demonstrations that ousted Mubarak.
"People have feelings about American policies — they have very strong feelings," he said. "I think we should take those views seriously. It doesn't mean American policy is going to be determined by Middle Eastern public opinion, but in so far as countries in that region are able to develop credible democracies, the United States is going to have no alternative but to at least respect those opinions, even if it doesn't necessarily agree with them. And this is a new factor."
Many people in the region don't want the U.S. interfering in their countries' internal affairs, says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. His book, Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why it Matters, is based on comprehensive polls taken across the Arab world. Zogby says the Arab public wants help building capacity and creating jobs and transparent economies. They also want the U.S. to treat them as it treats the Israelis. But, he says, the foreign policy elite in the U.S. is too entrenched.
"We need a revolution in our approach to how we deal with the Middle East," he said. "We cannot have a policy where we treat one group of people as the only people who count and the other group of people as pawns we move around on the board."
David Makovsky, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Israel knows it has solid support in the U.S., but some Israelis questioned why President Obama didn't show more support for Mubarak once the protests started. Makovsky also says events in Egypt have spooked many people in Israel.
"They're worried — it's not that the U.S. is going to pull away from the Israelis, it's that if the U.S. pulls away from the Jordanian and Egyptian governments and the militaries, that distancing will leave the pillars of peace to collapse," he said.
Still, Makovsky says it's unlikely the U.S. will abandon Egypt or Jordan, but there's a nervousness heading into the unknown.