In his address to the nation this evening, President Obama tried to rebut his critics' charges of strategic confusion over his handling of America's intervention in Libya. It is unlikely he succeeded. Yet despite their differences, the president and his critics share common ground. They both miss the larger point that Libya is strategically irrelevant.
The Obama administration has already squandered far too much time, attention and money on a lightly populated desert country that produces less than 2 percent of the world's oil (a shortfall that Saudi Arabia has already pledged to fill). Instead, the president and his advisors have neglected the real prize delivered up to the United State out of all the violence, chaos and uncertainty that has swept across the Middle East during the past three months: Egypt.
Egypt matters in a way that Libya, or any other Arab state, does not. Egypt is home to one out of every four Arabs. Egypt is the literary and cultural center of the Arab world. Egypt has been the source of the great ideological movements that have roiled the Middle East over the past half century, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser's pan-Arabism, and al Qaeda. If Egypt succeeds as a democratic and prosperous society, its example will have a ripple effect across the entire region.
And how has the Obama team reacted to events since Mubarak’s departure? The administration has engaged in an intramural scrum over Libya – the boys versus the girls, as one observer termed it. It has done little to support the transition to a more democratic Egypt. Indeed, Egypt barely merited two passing references in the president's remarks.
Perhaps the administration was smitten by the American media’s coverage of the young people who congregated in Tahrir Square – and which saw only budding democrats. No doubt some demonstrators were motivated by a variety of grievances, including the desire for a greater say in how they are governed. But far more were motivated by a sense of marginalization and humiliation at their inability to find work, marry, start a family and have a meaningful career. In other words, they were demonstrating for jobs.
The first, urgent challenge for the new Egyptian government is the need to create new jobs for the country's demographic bulge of unemployed young men. And it will have to do so in an unforgiving economic environment. After all the unrest, foreign direct investment has evaporated, tourism dollars have disappeared and commodity prices have increased.
It will take time for the jobs that existed in Egypt six months ago to return, never mind creating new jobs to address the massive unemployment, pegged before the revolution at 25 percent or higher. A few months from now, it is likely that the same young men we cheered in Tahrir Square will still be searching for work.
The political risk is that economic stagnation will discredit Egypt's efforts at democratic reform. With little tangible progress in their daily lives after expectations were raised so high, the Egyptian masses will conclude that democracy is not the answer. In fact, we are already seeing signs of impatience. The New York Times reported last week of rising dissatisfaction among young people questioning what the revolution has brought them.
Without economic progress, two scenarios are most likely to unfold. Either a strongman will re-emerge and impose order by fiat ("Mubarak 2"). Or the people will coalesce around extremist Muslim groups who claim that "Islam is the answer" (which happens to be the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood). In either case, the promise of the Egyptian revolution would be lost and, with it, all hope for Egypt serving as a model for transforming the Arab world.
Foreign aid is needed, but developmental projects take years to positively impact the local economy. There is also the risk of throwing large sums of money at a society where corruption is rampant, as we've seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Private investment is also needed, but capital is a coward; it will only return to Egypt if it feels welcome and secure. Corporations don't do nation-building unless there is the rule of law, transparency and some assurance of getting a return on their investment.
The Obama administration announced the creation of an Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund, but the legislation enabling the Fund is slowly working its way through Congress. It will take months, perhaps years, to become law and get fully staffed up. Far more is needed, and faster.
First, the Obama team needs to focus on Egypt and make its success a top-level priority. This means the president stating publicly that we will make Egypt’s progress an important objective of U.S. foreign policy and assigning a senior White House official the responsibility to get things done. The point here is not only to energize the U.S. bureaucracy, but also to signal to the Egyptian people that help is on the way. It will also buy more time for the reforms to take effect.
Second, more important than providing massive outside funding is providing teams of experts to help Egyptians develop new investment regulations, tax structures, and employment laws -- all designed to attract and retain foreign capital. As the President of the National Endowment for Democracy, Carl Gershman, has written, what Egypt needs is “regulatory reform, the protection of property rights and contract enforcement, and changes in antiquated bankruptcy laws that inhibit risk-taking.” Americans and Europeans can offer this expertise now.
The United States should be under no illusion at its ability to reshape the culture and political development of other countries. Ultimately, success or failure will depend on the Egyptian people. But just as the American revolution benefited from the assistance of France, so should we be willing to offer assistance -- and hope -- to the people of Egypt.
This is a special moment for the United States as well as Egypt. For more than four decades, the Middle East policy of every American administration, whether Democrat or Republican, has been haunted by the specter of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The lesson from the Shah's overthrow has been ingrained in a generation of U.S. policy makers – that we have only two choices in the Middle East, between supporting repressive autocrats or suffering Islamic extremists. Clever Arab leaders, such as Mubarak, elevated this lesson into a narrative that limited U.S. choices in the Middle East. They used it to win American military and financial support, while deflecting American interference in their domestic affairs.
Mubarak's overthrow now presents the United States with the possibility of developing a new narrative, one that speaks to freedom and democracy, accountability and the free market. In Egypt, the United States can support its values even as it supports its interests. And if Egypt is successful, it can serve as the political driver for remedying the democracy deficit and other pathologies that afflict regimes the across the region.
But only if the Obama administration keeps its eye on the real prize in the Middle East.
Mitchell Reiss is the author of "Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists," available as an ebook and in print from online retailers.