Egypt in Transition: Insights and Options for U.S. Policy

Egypt’s leadership has dashed expectations for a swift and complete shift from autocracy to democracy. The inherent conservatism of Egypt’s military leadership, combined with the political ineffectiveness of many of the activists who were at the center of public protests a year ago, is widening the gap between public expectations of the post-Mubarak era and its reality. The rise of Islamist politics in Egypt raises more questions than it answers. “Islamist” is not a concept with a single meaning, and there are likely to be skirmishes within parties and between them to help give meaning to the notion as Islamist forces share power—and exercise it—for the first time.

The United States has some role to play in Egypt’s transition, but it is a limited one. The Egyptian public links the United States closely to the ancien regime, despite President Obama’s calls for Mubarak to leave office in February 2011. Approval ratings of the United States have emerged from the single-digit lows of the Bush administration, but they remain stubbornly below 20 percent. The most enduring U.S. ties are with the Egyptian military, but even there, everything is not rosy.

In order to analyze the U.S. role in post-Mubarak Egypt, CSIS brought together some 15 of the most senior Egypt experts in the United States for weekly discussions in the fall of 2011.The group  agreed that, to be effective, U.S. strategy needs to be symbolic yet consequential, and targeted to catalyze further change. This report urges taking a long view of developments in Egypt and cautions against a rush toward conditionality to shape the Egyptian government’s actions. It calls for investments in democratic processes, in the Egyptian military, in trade, and in training and education.

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Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program