by Stephen Brown
As predicted, President Barack Obama’s attempt last week to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power failed miserably after he ran into a steel wall of opposition from the Egyptian president and his generals. Ignoring the pressure to resign, Mubarak showed Obama he will be the one who decides when he steps down and that he has the Egyptian military’s support in doing so. The White House’s plan to force Mubarak’s immediate departure not only exhibited an embarrassing lack of knowledge concerning Egyptian society and the danger a hasty coup would pose to Egypt’s fragile stability, but also that long-time American allies cannot rely on the Obama administration when in difficulty. This latest policy setback indicates, as has long been suspected, that in the area of foreign affairs, the Obama administration is in way over its head.
Perhaps the largest misstep in the failed attempt to get Mubarak out was made by Obama himself. In an obvious misreading of the political situation and of Mubarak’s character, President Obama intervened personally in Egyptian internal affairs with a hasty, 30-minute phone call to Mubarak last Tuesday evening after the Egyptian president said in a speech to the nation he would not seek re-election in September. The speech met with a mixed reception, but managed to garner sympathy among segments of the population, a development the White House had obviously not even considered.
After last Wednesday’s violence, the pressure from the White House on Mubarak to step aside increased significantly. That day, the Egyptian army stood aside and allowed pro-Mubarak supporters to attack anti-government demonstrators. The violence was probably part of a premeditated strategy to start reducing the size of the anti-government crowds and restore order to Cairo’s streets. But the frustration with the street battles, and with Mubarak, could be sensed in White House spokesman Robert Gibbs who bluntly related to the press that Mr. Mubarak’s offer to not seek re-election in September was inadequate.
“Not September. Now means now,” said Gibbs. “The conversation the president had with President Mubarak was direct…[and]…the message that the president delivered to President Mubarak was that the time for change had come.”
Also on Wednesday, Obama asked American military commanders, as well as the leaders of France, England and Germany, “to lean hard on Egyptian army chiefs to bring Mubarak’s presidency to an end in the coming hours.” Again, the misreading of the Egyptian political scene’s inner workings is astonishing, considering the important place this state occupies in the Arab world and as America’s and Israel’s most important Arab ally. Obama’s advisors seemed to have discounted the fact that Mubarak is a general himself with a distinguished war record. And although Mubarak has donned civilian clothes, he is still regarded, and regards himself, as a member of the officer corps. Besides, his fellow officers probably also feared that the Egyptian leader’s rapid removal would only lead to chaos, as Mubarak himself had already stated. (The benefit this scenario would have given to the Islamist Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was another factor the administration seemed to ignore.)
Additionally, any high-ranking officers owe their loyalty and positions to Mubarak, and therefore would not be prepared to throw their leader under the bus. Now that he has said he would step down in September, his brother officers, along with many ordinary Egyptians, believe Mubarak should be allowed to leave on his own time with his pride and dignity intact and that the demonstrations should end. Already on Monday, the army corralled the demonstrators into a smaller area on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to allow for a flow of traffic as banks reopen and the city begins to return to normal.
Even before Obama’s misplaced phone call to Mubarak, however, Senator John Kerry had already said Tuesday morning in a New York Times op-ed piece that Mubarak “must accept that the stability of his country hinges on his willingness to step aside gracefully…”, indicating the direction Democratic policy was to take.
But what a difference a couple of days make, especially when one is trying to cover up a foreign policy failure. On the weekend, the White House began its spin that it never wanted Mubarak out immediately. Returning from a security conference in Munich, Hillary Clinton told journalists that removing Mubarak too hastily would threaten the transmission to democracy. It seems to have eluded Clinton, however, that this chaos factor is exactly why Mubarak told a White House emissary, Frank Wiesner, last Monday he was not going to resign.
In a statement that indicates the shallowness of the Obama administration’s knowledge of Egyptian conditions, Clinton, in comparing Mubarak with the Tunisian president who abandoned his country after two weeks of disturbances, said: “It is striking that in Tunisia, Ben Ali…didn’t have the depth of support within the institutions of his government that would have enabled him even to attempt to hang on…”
Clinton also cited Egyptian constitutional niceties for not having Mubarak step down now, although these niceties did not seem to play any role last week when the White House wanted him out. The Secretary of State also did not mention the Egyptian opposition’s solution to any constitutional problems, which was to simply suspend the constitution for the transition period.
But it was Frank Wiesner, the special envoy who had asked Mubarak last week to step down only a few days earlier, who did the biggest about-face. At the Munich conference, he said: “President Mubarak’s role remains extremely critical in the days ahead.” Hilary Clinton, it was reported, did not contradict his statement.
The Obama administration’s policy in regard to the Egyptian situation appears to be following a crooked line. First, it backed Mubarak, believing he would be able to control the situation with Clinton even calling his government stable. When the protests grew in size, however, the administration switched sides, supported the anti-government demonstrators, and attempted to force Mubarak out. After Mubarak demonstrated his mettle and would not leave, the White House changed course once again, dropping its campaign to dump him and leaving the demonstrators to twist in the wind with respect to their demand that Mubarak resign.
And don’t expect things to get any better. With such shifting in positions, one must ask whether the instability is in the White House rather than in Egypt. The only constant position Obama has followed is his stated willingness to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in any post-Mubarak Egyptian government. He reiterated this troubling position again on Sunday in an interview with Bill O’Reilly.
Considering its record so far, the best action the Obama administration can take now regarding Egypt, except for sending humanitarian aid, is to stand back and let the Egyptians handle their own transition to democracy. Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman has already opened negotiations with the opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood. No one knows better the danger the Brotherhood represents than Suleiman who, as head of the Mukhabarat, imprisoned hundreds of them. Mubarak also knows the Islamists’ murderous capability, since he was on the reviewing stand when they killed his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.
In a CNN interview, reported in the New York Times, Rashid Mohammed Rashid, a former Egyptian trade and industry minister, confirms this would be the best option for the Obama administration. Speaking of the White House pressuring Mubarak to resign, Rashid said that “there was too much interference.”
“I think the position of President Obama, the position of the American government was extremely short-sighted, I don’t want even to say stupid,” he said. “They shouldn’t actually get involved in this.”
Mubarak is here to stay until September’s election. Having been surprised by events in Tunisia and Egypt and lacking a plan for this turmoil, the Obama administration should acknowledge defeat regarding the Egyptian president and refrain from efforts to oust him. That would only lead to even greater turmoil, which is the last thing Egypt needs.
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