The popular uprisings – dubbed the Arab Spring – overthrew long-standing autocratic rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and shook the rulers in Syria, Morocco, and Jordan. In the wake of 18 days of mass demonstrations in Egypt, the Obama administration took the momentous decision of advising President Hosni Mubarak to resign, handing the control of the country over to the military. The removal of Mubarak was one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration, since the United States support to Egypt had never faltered ever since the time of Anwar Sadat. Determined to be ‘on the right side of history’, Obama put pressure on Mubarak to hand over power, and to begin what he believed to be a transition to a more democratic and stable country.

This article Changing foreign policy: the Obama Administration’s decision to oust Mubarak published in the issue 1/2017 (Volume 60 – N. 1) of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional dwells on the issue of Obama’s risky move of abandoning a trusted ally, allowing an Islamist-dominated regime to rise to power through democratic elections. In facing popular challenge against Mubarak, the US accepted to forgo a close, trusted, long-standing ally, who had consistently accommodated America’s interests, in exchange for a situation of uncertainty towards an area of the world that the US have regarded as vital to its interests. That change might have entailed a dramatic shift in the architecture of US alliances in the Arab world. The demise of Mubarak was a major turning point of US policy in the Middle East, perhaps one of the most significant ever since World War II. This change may undermine its international role in the area, as well as its capacity for shaping and influencing events, and protecting its interests, as later events have demonstrated.

The main aim of this article is to ascertain to what extent did that risky decision of the Obama administration, demanding that Mubarak step down, lead to a foreign policy change. Secondly, this paper aims to determine the extent of the actual change, from the perspective of how the change of leadership impacted Washington’s overall policy towards Egypt.

The theoretical foundation of this study lies within the larger field of Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA), and in particular, of Foreign Policy Change (FPC). C. Hermann’s contribution to the study of FPC is particularly useful for this analysis. He proposes a typology of change, through a four-level graduation, to help discern the depth change: ‘adjustment change’; ‘programme change’; ‘problem/goal change’, and ‘international orientation change’. This paper speaks to broader themes in FPA about the conditions under which dramatic changes in foreign policies take place; the conditions under which states take a bold new direction that may challenge their immediate interests; the differences and commonalities betweenlarge-scale, dramatic change, and less radical forms of FPC; and the implications these can have in the domestic arena, as well as their external consequences.

This paper tracks the evolution of the United States position regarding the events of the Arab Spring unfolding in Egypt, from the beginning of the protests, until the downfall of the Morsi government in August 2013. In particular, it zooms-in on American policy throughout the revolutionary period, until the fall of Mubarak (January 25 – February 11), and on the new US stance towards the short-lived Islamist-led regime of the Muslim Brotherhood (from June 30 2012 to July 3 2013). With the hope that, in doing so, it will be possible to ascertain (1) how Washington coped with the crisis against the framework of a fast-moving and uncertain background scenario, especially the grim prospect of dispensing Mubarak; (2) and in what sense there was an actual redirecting of US foreign policy under the rule of Morsi.

This study is also the starting point for a more thorough discussion of the instance of how a major power took a critical foreign policy decision. As is the case for most negotiation and crisis situations, crucial decisions – like the one analyzed in this paper -, involve high levels of uncertainty about what may follow. In addition, these decisions involve value trade-offs for decision-makers, especially in terms of managing complexity, accommodating competing values and interests, as well as various types of pressure made by several intervening actors, both domestic and international.

Thus, as far as Hermann’s model of FPC is concerned, Obama’s acceptance of a regime change in Egypt was an adjustment change. That decision required changing the level of effort and the kind of recipients addressed by a policy, although the basic goals remained unaltered:maintaining the diplomatic status quo in Egypt. The administration did not change its goals, but the fact is that retaining a friendly leader in power became secondary to avoiding a scenario of prolonged unrest and civil war. In this case, letting go of a reliable ally was a price that could be paid, in order to ensure a peaceful transition and avoid a descent into chaos. In fact, maintaining a relationship with whomever came into power, as long as mediated by the Egyptian military, became the lowest common denominator.

Regarding the extent of actual change, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power was neither calamitous, nor advantageous for US national interests. It did not turn Egypt into a theocracy. The M. Morsi government also did not terminate Egypt’s treaty with Israel, and it even brokered a helpful ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza. The 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty remained in place, and American-Egypt military cooperation was also continued.

This study’s empirical case points to the possibility that alteration of a major foreign policy track record, and replacing a close ally, may not result in dramatic FPC. In such cases, it is important to look, not only at what changed, but also at what remained the same across those periods.The case in point shows it is possible to navigate the FPC process, and shape it in order to reduce the potential scope of change, and the unpredictability that the process entails. As suggested by PA Hall, while a policy paradigm can be threatened – the reliability of Mubarak’s rule –, anomalies that do not fit the terms of the paradigm can be ‘stretched’ or fine-tuned to incorporate them. As postulated by J. W. Legro, dramatic FP shifts rarely occur, as embedded mindsets and the ideational inertia’ is magnified in the organizational culture of governamental agencies and bureaucracies.

Read the article

Arena, Maria do Céu Pinto. (2017). Changing foreign policy: the Obama Administration’s decision to oust Mubarak. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e020. Epub November 21, 2017.

About the author

Maria do Céu Pinto Arena – Universidade do Minho, Departamento de Relações Internacionais e Administração Pública, Braga, Portugal (

Cite this note

Cite this article as: Editoria, "Foreign policy in crisis situations: analyzing the Obama Administration’s decision to dismiss the Mubarak regime, by Maria do Ceu Pinto Arena," in Revista Mundorama, 24/11/2017,


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