Washington's Middle East dilemma

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Washington's Middle East dilemma

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How can Washington balance its strategic interests in Egypt and the Middle East, with its support for political reform in the region?

The White House was arguably caught off guard and some have drawn unflattering parallels between the US’s cautious response and President Obama’s own pledge made in Cairo in 2009.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama declared.

The US secretary of state, in particular, was slammed for initially saying President Mubarak’s government appeared ‘stable’, before she joined Obama, toughening her stance.

“What will eventually happen in Egypt is up to the Egyptians. But it is important for us to make very clear that as a partner of Egypt, we are urging that there be a restraint on the part of the security forces,” Hillary Clinton said.

That message was heard by Egypt’s armed forces after the Pentagon held face to face talks with the top brass of Egypt’s military last week.

The links between Washington and the Egyptian army run deep. Egypt receives some 1.3 billion dollars annually from the US in military aid. And yet, that only represents 1%t of the Arab state’s GDP compared to around 20% in 1980.

The real fear for the White House is that the crisis unfolding in Egypt could envelop the whole of the region. President Mubarak has been a close US partner for decades, citing the danger of Islamic militancy. Cairo has also played a major role in the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians and is seen as a counterweight to Iran. In addition, there is the crucial question of the Suez Canal – a key Western strategic interest.

So far, there is no reason to think countries like Saudi Arabia will go the same way as Egypt. However, the Arab state typifies the fine line Obama has to tread. An aging leadership with a terrible human rights record but also a top ally against extremism.