Belmont Club

Egypt: No-Holes-Barred Diplomacy

The question yesterday was whether Mubarak’s offer not to run in September would be enough to defuse the situation. The emerging answer is no, as supporters of Mubarak, some mounted on horses and camels, clashed with oppositionists in the street.  But the protesters aren’t done either, even if they may have to shift to lower gear. Egypt’s Internet is back up. This suggests the fight will go on until one side wins.  What’s a president to do in such a situation?

One immediate result of the return in connectivity is that the world will once again get to see the blood and guts.

With the restoration of access, Twitter lit up from the scene. Among those in tweeting from Tahrir Square are Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof), who just sent this series of messages via the web:

In my part of Tahrir, pro-#Mubarak mobs arrived in buses, armed with machetes, straight-razors and clubs, very menacing.

I saw some people who were motionless and seemed badly injured. Hard to know casualties, but they’re adding up.

Pro-#Mubarak thugs at #Tahrir v hostile to journalists. Several journalists attacked. I was threatened but am fine.

The spectacle will naturally arouse strong passions in the Arab world and calls for President Obama to “do something.” But what will the president do?  Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post quotes Egyptian human rights activists who say the Obama administration has been coming down on both sides of the fence for too long. Diehl believes the president must choose sides or risk being blamed by both. Diehl says dump Mubarak:

Hassan watched President Obama’s statement Tuesday night, and saw it as a good example of what U.S. policy has been the last two years: “fine words, but no action.” “I think that this administration in practice has supported not only the Mubarak regime but all the authoritarian regimes in the Arab region,” he said.

“The Cairo speech president Obama made two years ago sent a very good message to the Arab people. But in reality the administration engaged with the regimes at the expense of the people. It didn’t help the people of the region and it didn’t help U.S. long-term interests — and this is what we not see in the streets of Cairo.”

The problem is that Mubarak has a been a loyal supporter of the U.S. diplomatic game, as Tony Blair explained. Bucking the tide of journalistic opinion, Blair said Mubarak is “immensely courageous and a force for good”:

Speaking to Piers Morgan on CNN, Blair defended his backing for Mubarak.

“Where you stand on him depends on whether you’ve worked with him from the outside or on the inside. I’ve worked with him on the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians so this is somebody I’m constantly in contact with and working with and on that issue, I have to say, he’s been immensely courageous and a force for good,” he said.

“Inside Egypt, and I have many Egyptian friends, it’s clear that there’s been a huge desire for change.”

Asked if the west had not been an obstacle to change, Blair defended the policies of his and other governments.

“I don’t think the west should be the slightest bit embarrassed about the fact that it’s been working with Mubarak over the peace process but at the same time it’s been urging change in Egypt,” he said.

Mubarak’s “courage,” as Blair described it, may now be working against Obama. The 82 year-old Egyptian is proving to be as stubborn as hell.  So far he has not folded before President Obama’s signaling offensive. President Obama has been running an information operation along the lines he knows; crafting  messages ever so artfully, a void here and a shade there, the coloring exactly right.  Jake Tapper noted that the president was avoiding the press, taking no questions on Egypt and even excluding reporters from the ceremonial signing of the START Treaty, to which only photographers were allowed. He has been keeping his core message away from the White House press corps.

In the meantime the biggest bandwidth to Egypt has been ascribed to the US military, which is using its informal connection to talk to their counterparts. “U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke to Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi yesterday, the second time in recent days. And Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, Obama’s top military adviser, has maintained contact with his counterpart, armed forces chief of staff Sami Hafez Enan.”


At the very top of the communication’s strategy is the Presidential Sphinx. The president has remained vague, calling for “a best-case outcome of free elections that reaffirm human dignity, all on a non-specific timeline.” AOL’s Lauren Frayer believes the vagueness is deliberate:

The United States also appears to be taking that cautious view, and President Barack Obama’s speech late Tuesday about Egypt seemed deliberately vague. Obama said he spoke with Mubarak by phone for 30 minutes and described what he told him.

“It is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” Obama said. But it’s unclear whether Obama’s demand that change begin now means Mubarak must leave office immediately, or whether it means he can stay on and implement major reforms in the lead-up to September elections.

A 30 minute phone call is not a lot of bandwidth, and if Obama’s conversation with Mubarak is as described, the clashes between pro- and anti- Mubarak protesters suggest that the Egyptian leader is interpreting Obama’s recommendations in an equally vague way.

It remains to be seen whether President Obama’s carefully contrived signaling will have any effect. His mix of public messages, intentional vagueness, internal news blackouts, and the use of back channels to convey specific information may have been altogether too much subtlety for a situation that may call for a clear black and white decision. Is he he going to throw Mubarak out and forcefully supplant him with a new man? Or will he get behind Mubarak’s enemies and make peace with whatever comes?

So far he has been trying to eat his cake and have it too. But perhaps the time is fast approaching when he will have to throw in behind one faction or the other in Egypt. Signaling doesn’t always stop a runaway train.

The president’s main professional experience is the campaign. Prior to becoming president of the United States, his only executive experience was running the Chicago Annenberg Foundation. Media operations are what he knows. Now in his first real foreign policy crisis, he’s trying to use the same tools. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post catches the atmosphere of Obama-style crisis management. It is, as ever, approached as a PR problem.

Aaron David Miller, speaking to Politico’s Josh Gerstein, agrees this isn’t much of an improvement over what Obama has been saying for days: “The only new element was the word ‘now’ and that was finessed. This leaves the U.S. to some degree still at odds with and out of step with what the political opposition … is demanding on the street.”

Moreover, what does Obama’s statement mean? Mubarak himself can claim there is a transition afoot since he won’t be running again for president. Obama didn’t do much to shove Mubarak off the stage, saying only, “Throughout this process, the United States will continue to extend the hand of partnership and friendship to Egypt. And we stand ready to provide any assistance that is necessary to help the Egyptian people as they manage the aftermath of these protests.” Is the helping hand to Mubarak or to those insisting he depart immediately? …

I asked a former Middle East hand if there was something new here. He replied, “Nothing.” Why a nothing speech, then? He answered, “My interpretation is that this is an effort to claim credit. That’s why he went immediately after Mubarak. They [the Obama advisers] know they muffed it and missed it and blew it — so the empty remarks are an effort to establish a counter narrative.”

In any other administration, you’d think such an assessment harsh. But remember, this is an administration that views Egypt’s revolution as a PR problem.

The words of Gilbert and Sullivan come to mind, slightly altered:

I am the very model of a modern Media-General,
I’ve talking points on any subject didactical or liberal,
I know the hosts of talk shows, and claim mandates historical
From Roe to Wade to I myself, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters economical,
I understand that printing money is rarely problematical,
About Alaskan natives I’ve definite enlightened views
With reasons why ladies shouldn’t shoot the wilder moose.
And though my practical knowledge is both spottily and scantily,
Enlivened but with anecdotes from the 8th or 19th century;
But still, in matters rhetorical, polemical, political,
I am the very model of a modern Media-General.


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