A year ago, the Obama Administration found itself caught between trying to save the key Arab ally of Washington’s Middle East Policy over three decades, and aligning itself with the democratic aspirations of Egypt’s people to be rid of the dictator. Unable to fashion a coherent response, the Administration’s dilemma appeared to solve itself when the Egyptian military stepped forward and ousted Mubarak, putting executive power in the hands of the 20-odd generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and promising to deliver on the democratic demands of the rebellion.
But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
While the generals agreed to hold free and fair elections, they also made clear their intention to reserve for themselves a supreme executive role above that of democratically elected institutions, and to ensure that the military was never subject to civilian political control. The demand for the junta to yield to civilian rule has prompted renewed clashes in Tahrir Square, which have taken a bloody toll. But it has also become clear that the main beneficiaries of the democratic parliamentary elections that began in November are the Islamist parties — the Muslim Brotherhood, which has draw the largest share of the vote, and the smaller more radical Salafist movement whose party finished second, their combined vote looking likely to give a two thirds majority to Islamist parties (although the Brotherhood has vowed to align with secular liberal parties rather than the Salafists).
The Brotherhood is insisting that the military allow the elected parliament to choose a new government, and also to speed up a presidential poll to be held in 2012, following which the generals have promised to yield power. But if the generals try to hold on to the reins, the political crisis in Egypt is likely to deepen. The problem the U.S. faces is a familiar one: The generals who stand in the way of democracy are also those with close ties to the U.S. and over whom Washington wields influence, not least via the massive annual stipend the U.S. pays the Egyptian military to keep the peace with Israel. On the other hand, the emerging elected institutions that will anchor Egyptian democracy look set to be dominated by those whom the U.S. has traditionally viewed with hostility. A clash between the two will thrust Team Obama right back onto the horns of the dilemma it faced when Mubarak was under siege.