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Analysis: If Mubarak goes, U.S. must reassure allies

With signs of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's imminent exit, U.S. President Barack Obama faces the test of keeping the power shift in Cairo from unnerving Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel or emboldening foes like Iran and al Qaeda.
/ Source: Reuters

With signs of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's imminent exit, U.S. President Barack Obama faces the test of keeping the power shift in Cairo from unnerving Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel or emboldening foes like Iran and al Qaeda.

If Mubarak goes, Washington's biggest challenge will be to make sure the next government meets the democratic aspirations of protesters while keeping Islamists from ending up with enough power to undermine U.S. interests in the region.

The White House made clear it was closely monitoring fast-moving events as top officials from the head of Egypt's ruling party to Obama's own CIA chief left little doubt they expected Mubarak to step down as early as Thursday night.

The Obama administration's cautious push for an orderly transition of power — though not as forceful as anti-Mubarak protesters wanted — sent a message it was ready to see the longtime U.S. partner step down sooner rather than later.

U.S. officials will now do everything possible to keep intact close ties with the powerful Egyptian army, which relies heavily on U.S. aid and is seen as the key to keeping the situation from descending into chaos.

Uninterrupted shipping through the Suez Canal is considered of paramount concern.

Key policy implications
The following are the key implication for Washington's policy toward Egypt and the broader Middle East:

—The upheaval in Cairo and other Arab capitals will have repercussions for years on how the United States deals with the Middle East. U.S. officials have said repeatedly they are entering uncharted waters and see a long period of uncertainty and volatility.

One key factor is that Washington can no longer be seen backing autocratic Arab rulers to the hilt just for the sake of stability in the oil-rich region. Instead its policy will have to take heed of popular discontent bubbling up in allied countries such as Yemen and Jordan, inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

—Obama, who had moved swiftly to distance himself from Mubarak despite a close 30-year partnership with the United States, will have to reassure the leaders of Saudi Arabia, smaller Gulf states and other friends in the region that he will not pull the rug out from under them.

Obama will be especially mindful not only of the need for stability to secure the region's vital oil supplies but the importance of countries like oil-wealthy and well-armed Saudi Arabia as a counterweight to Iran's regional clout.

—Washington has relied on Egypt and other Arab allies for intelligence and other assistance in the fight against al Qaeda. Mubarak had long depicted himself as a bulwark against Islamic militancy, in part to justify his authoritarian rule.

The Obama administration will have to work to maintain counterterrorism ties with Egyptian authorities while trying to prevent any slippage with other allies like Yemen, whose longtime ruler also faces unrest.

Click here to view our Obama and Egypt cartoon slideshow.

—Crucial to Washington's post-Mubarak strategy will be calming any fears in Israel, the pivotal U.S. ally in the region and which is worried about the turmoil in its neighbor. Egypt's upheaval has raised fears of Islamist radicalization that could threaten Cairo's 1979 peace accord with Israel and its role in Middle East peace efforts.