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Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin

Robert J. Goodwin is CEO and co-founder of Executives Without Borders; former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and appointee at USAID, the State Department and the White House.

A national symbol of oppression

Question: Egypt's unfolding political crisis raises a broader question: Can an entrenched, powerful leader, one who has resisted change, successfully lead a country or an organization in a different direction if circumstances suddenly demand it? Or is it necessary to bring in new leadership?

President Mubarak's announcement that he will not seek another term in Egypt's September elections was inevitable--as it would be in any country or organization experiencing such a strong show of constituent dissatisfaction with leadership.

Many nations in the Middle East are ruled with an iron fist, with most tainted by excesses of power, corruption and a lack of citizen representation. While these leaders tend to be their nation's ambassadors to the rest of the world, they are also a focal point for the anger of those who feel powerless. In the case of Egypt, President Mubarak has become a national symbol of oppression and despotism.

While President Mubarak brought great honor to Egypt through his role as a peace broker, it is important to recognize that many Egyptians struggle daily for basic survival, have experienced years of systemic abuses and could care less about what happens beyond their borders. While President Mubarak has trust and credibility with many foreign governments, he is viewed in a very different light by those he has led for the last 30 years--making his ability to govern in a time of rapid change impossible.

In pursuit of security and stability in the Middle East, the U.S. has traditionally turned a blind eye to autocratic rule as long as it did not create regional instability (as in the case of Iraq). The United States supported President Mubarak, but also recognized mounting instability throughout the Egyptian populace. In response, they created the largest mission ever for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through an ongoing multi-billion dollar foreign aid program. Unfortunately, USAID's programs failed to do much of anything to reduce poverty or unemployment rates, the root causes of Egypt's current unrest.

We've seen it in Haiti (where I am writing from now), Yemen, Egypt and a number of other countries where leaders have grown more corrupt and ruthless over time to compensate for ineffective governance. Running their countries as police states allowed them to stay in power in the near term, but marred their legacies and created long-term resentment. Most regimes resorted to preservation strategies of restricting access to information and media to keep such feelings under wraps. Such strategies are fast becoming obsolete with the proliferation of social media allowing people to easily document, voice and share concerns with each other and the world in real time.

Ultimately, ineffective governance and oppressive strategies created breeding grounds for extremism, erected barriers to development and let critical infrastructure decay. While the current shift in U.S. policy in terms of Egypt is important, it is late in coming. There are many problems to face in the United States, but we must do a more effective job of leveraging all aspects of national power (especially our business community and entrepreneurial spirit) to create jobs and alleviate global poverty. Time is of the essence and inaction will lead to further unrest and the possibility of anger spreading beyond Egypt to our own shores.

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By Robert Goodwin

 |  February 2, 2011; 3:23 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: It's impossible to change direction without support | Next: A new narrative for Egypt

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