Belmont Club

Mubarak Obama

The WSJ says the White House rejected a suggestion by the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center that President Obama had put himself on the wrong side of events in the region by abandoning Bush’s democracy agenda. The White House said it had been working quietly encouraging NGOs and that the president had been in the forefront of spreading democracy since his speech in Cairo. So the question was, on which side was the president on now?

He stayed in character by taking both sides of the argument. He was for his “partner” and he understood the concerns of those beating on the walls of the Egyptian state:

Asked if President Barack Obama stood by the 81-year-old Egyptian strongman, Mr. Gibbs said: “This is not about picking a person, or the people of a country,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The U.S. tone, while shifting to acknowledge the fast-moving situation in Egypt, remained studiously cautious, suggesting they saw one last chance for Mr. Mubarak to address protestors’ concerns. It also was perhaps an acknowledgment that the alternatives to his rule were either uncertain, unknown or unpalatable.

Those words may not satisfy Egyptians rising up against decades of autocratic rule backed largely by the U.S., said Shadi Hamid, an expert of Arab politics and democracy promotion at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar.

Arabs perceive Mr. Obama as de-emphasizing democracy promotion after George W. Bush tried to make it a centerpiece of his second term, Mr. Hamid said. Expressions of “concern” should be condemnation and outrage, Mr. Hamid said. “We are watching history, and Obama is on the wrong side of it.”

White House officials bristled at such criticism, noting Mr. Obama’s comments on Middle East democracy starting with his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo less than six months into his term.

On Thursday, during an interview on YouTube, the president spoke of “legitimate grievances” in Egypt and said “violence is not the answer.”

The president urged Mubarak to refrain from using force to suppress dissent, according to USA Today. “What is needed are concrete steps to advance the rights of the Egyptian people. This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise.” But the president also asked the demonstrators to behave peacefully.

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In order to lend force to his wishes, Bloomberg reports the president is turning the screws on Mubarak to force him to make concessions to the protesters. “The Obama administration is ramping up pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to address the grievances of the Egyptian people and said the government’s response to protests may affect U.S. aid.”

But there were also signs that the Obama administration was looking past Mubarak — to the Muslim Brotherhood, “a hard-line, but nonviolent, Islamic” group. Not only was the president taking both sides of the argument, he was looking to buy insurance for the future. Last week the administration had also admonished the Hezbollah to respect the Lebanese constitution and to eschew violence.  The formula then was that things were “up to the Lebanese people”; and with that, America’s support for March 14 was pronounced dead. The words are remarkably similar to Obama’s observation that only Egyptians can decide the fate of Egypt. The message appears to be: we’ll deal with the last man standing:

Friday, for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood took part in street protests, sparking fears in some quarters that a largely secular protest against economic and political repression could assume religious overtones.

Obama administration officials declined to speculate on the Muslim Brotherhood’s role. Mr. Gibbs said the administration has not been in touch with the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed political group which advocates a hard-line, but nonviolent, Islamic agenda.

Analysts said the administration will likely have to figure out how to accommodate a movement that is openly hostile to Israel, even if it is also a sworn enemy of violent groups like al Qaeda.

“If there is change in Egypt, then the Muslim Brotherhood will be part of it, so we must accept it as part of any representative government,” said Bruce Riedel, a scholar at Brookings Institute who briefed the Obama administration on counterterror policies.

But who will be the last man standing?

If Mubarak agrees to loosen his grip on power, it is difficult to imagine a negotiated solution that does somehow bring the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups a measure of power. And from then on the power will slip inexorably into the hands of the best prepared and organized opposition group. But to even gain such a negotiating position would require Mubarak to demonstrate clearly to the MB that it will be too expensive to give him the bum’s rush now. From a Machiavellian perspective, the best way to maximize Mubarak’s chance of negotiating his way out is to crack down hard now — with all the risks that entails. But by signaling in advance that Washington will not countenance brutality, that option is closed and the opposition’s best chance may be to press on, knowing they will not face the full force of the Egyptian regime.

The White House is caught in a cruel dilemma. If they give Mubarak the green light to crack down hard under the temporary cloak of the Internet blackout, they could create a tide of anger that will end up in Riyadh — not to mention a tut-tut or two from the New York Times. But if they force Mubarak to lift the Internet blackout and go softly, the MB will press forward knowing the Egyptian dictator’s prescribed limits. Can they come down the middle? Use just enough force to get Mubarak to the bargaining table without causing massive casualties?

That is the greatest unknown. There is a great possibility that the Egyptian military, in common with other Third World armies, has not the finesse to selectively strike in the manner of armies like America’s, Britain’s or Israel’s. Maybe they’ve only got an on and off switch. In some sense Mubarak’s dilemma is also Obama’s: how much is too much; how much too little? Unless the president very skilfully negotiates between Scylla and Charybdis, he may suffer the fate of Jimmy Carter, whose diplomats believed until the last that they could make a deal with the Ayatollah Khomeini. They had misjudged the wave time after time and until they were wiped out by history’s breakers.


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