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After Mubarak Resignation, US Policy Assessed

The sun sets on protesters as they demonstrate and celebrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011

The sun sets on protesters as they demonstrate and celebrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011

President Hosni Mubarak's resignation Friday set off joyous celebrations in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. The Obama administration was caught off guard by the news and scrambled to craft a response. But behind closed doors, officials assessed their policy toward a new Egypt.

Thursday he wasn't. Friday he was. Within 24 hours of saying he wouldn't go, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned.

That brought jubilation to Tahrir Square. And, here in Washington... "And finally he stepped down, so I’m so excited, I’m so happy," said one person following the events.

The news left the U.S. assessing its foreign policy.

"The word Tahrir means liberation. It's a word that speaks to something in our souls that cries out for freedom. Forever more it will remind us of the Egyptian people," said President Barack Obama.

It's a clear message from the president after US policy flip-flopped over two weeks, at times supporting the protesters. Other times leaning toward the government. And frustrating analysts and legislators.

Now, experts say the administration has much work ahead. Khaled Elgindy, with the Brookings Institution, said, "They have a lot of policy-making catch-up to do in terms of how they approach the region now, because this is a complete game-changer. And they're going to have to formulate, re-organize their priorities in the Middle East and adapt to this very, very different reality that exists on the ground now."

A big transition for Egypt will be "free and fair" elections.

So far, no one has emerged as a leading presidential candidate. Prominent voices include Nobel laureate Mohamed El Baradei, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and Google executive Wael Ghonim, held by the authorities for more than a week.

Elgindy said Egypt - as the largest and most influential Arab state - will be a model for the region. So U.S. policy is key.

Already, several countries have enacted reforms proactively to maintain calm.

Although the survival of the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty was a concern for US policymakers, Elgindy said the demonstrators simply want a better life.

"They want to be able to have a say in shaping their future. They want what young people everywhere want. And I don't think that includes initiating a war. And that's essentially what abrogating the peace treaty would mean," said Elgindy.

Analysts say the Egyptian activists and their successes could change U.S. policy.

Stephen McInerney, with the Project On Middle East Democracy, said, "These uprisings will make the opinions of the people in the region more important strategically to the U.S. The U.S. has been able to not value as much of the opinions of the populations because they were headed by non-representative governments and not accountable to their populations”"

For 30 years, change was not a word associated with Egyptian politics. Now that it is, analysts are anxious to see how deep that change will go - and how the US will support it.