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September 24, 2017

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Egypt may distract Obama from Asia

WASHINGTON -- The unprecedented revolution in Egypt has raised many intriguing questions, one of which is whether the street protests could have a "domino" or "contagion" effect on the region and beyond.

Following the ouster of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of mass protests, will other Arab rulers in Syria, Libya, or Bahrain be similarly swept away by a wave of public dissent and anger? Leaders like King Abdullah II of Jordan have already taken pre-emptive steps like sacking the existing government leaders and ordering fresh economic and political reforms.

Some commentators have also wondered if the revolution in Egypt could inspire similar uprisings further a field in Asia, particularly in harsh authoritarian regimes like Myanmar and North Korea.

But people power does not travel as well as the SARS virus, which skipped from one continent to the next with frightening ease when it first emerged in 2003. More importantly, the political situation in Egypt remains in flux, and it is far from clear what the real lessons will turn out to be eventually.

For now, one question for Asian countries is whether the revolution in Egypt will once again prompt the United States to shift its attention overwhelmingly to the Middle East.

Most people agree that things will not go back to the way they were in Egypt. This includes the U.S.' crucial ties with Egypt, which have been key to the fragile peace and stability in the region for decades.

How this relationship will evolve is uncertain, but it is clear the U.S. administration will spend an inordinate amount of time and resources in the coming years, trying to figure out how best to preserve its interests and initiatives in the region after the revolution.

And with campaigning for the 2012 U.S. presidential race expected to begin soon, this White House may not have enough "bandwidth" to deal with much else.

Will Washington's engagement with Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, fall by the wayside again, as it did in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

There are good reasons to believe that the administration fully appreciates the fact that the stakes in Asia are now much higher than they were a decade ago.

This is apparent from the way the administration's diplomats and senior military leaders have stepped up their game in Asia for much of the past year, making Washington's presence visibly felt in key regional summits and longstanding issues like the South China Sea dispute.

U.S. President Barack Obama has also made plain that his outreach to the region is not just about geopolitics, but also as an essential part of his efforts to revive the American economy and create more jobs — by exporting more to fast-developing Asian economies.

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