Belmont Club

Mr. Dithers

Alex Johnson at MSNBC says: “Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman has ticked off the Obama administration [by declaring that Egypt was unready for democracy], but the White House is sticking to its position that he’s in charge of the transition to a new government that it won’t determine.” Pressed on what it would do to rebuff Suleiman, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said:

“I speak for the president of the United States.”

He went on to say, however, that disputes like that “can’t be arbitrated by us.”

“That’s going to be determined by the reaction in Cairo and by the people,” he said.

Gibbs’ statement that the response which cannot “be arbitrated by us” is going to come from somebody else, presumably from reactions “by the people,” is the characteristic signature of an administration which has trying to have it both ways.  This occurred as demonstrations, rather than dying down, have gotten bigger than ever, according to the BBC:

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the latest protest calling for Hosni Mubarak’s government to step down. Correspondents say it is the biggest demonstration since the protests began on 25 January. It comes despite the government’s announcement of its plans for a peaceful transfer of power. …

Wael Ghonim, a Google executive was detained and blindfolded by state security forces for 12 days, was feted by the crowds as he entered Tahrir Square.

Ghonim made a tearful appearance in the Square, where he recounted events that drove him to rebellion. “CAIRO, Feb 8 (Reuters) – One man’s tears provided a new impetus on Tuesday to protesters in Egypt seeking to keep up momentum in their campaign, now in its third week, to topple President Hosni Mubarak.”

Wael Ghonim, a Google executive detained and blindfolded by state security for 12 days, broke down in a television interview on Monday after his release saying a system that arrested people for speaking out must be torn down. “Ghonim’s tears have moved millions and turned around the views of those who supported (Mubarak) staying,” website wrote two hours after Ghonim’s TV appearance. In that short span, 70,000 people had signed up to Facebook pages supporting him.

The VOA says, “Egypt Protests Swell Despite Government Steps on Reform,” and this new round of unrest may unsettle calculations at a time when the Egyptian unrest appeared to have been put under control by the army, and analysts were already wondering how the U.S. could influence the process — without appearing to influence it. Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy captured the administration’s confusion. He wrote that “Obama is still trying for Egyptian Change” without really trying, hoping some reform would happen without either having the means nor the gumption to actually press for it it:

There seems to be a congealing narrative that the Obama administration has thrown in its lot with Omar Suleiman, abandoned its push for democratic change, and succumbed to short-sighted pragmatism. … But this narrative, so politically convenient for so many different actors, captures only one part of the truth. It’s right that the administration was frustrated by Mubarak’s rejection of the blizzard of messages they sent along all channels on the need to begin an immediate and meaningful transition. …

Despite the rapid consensus that Suleiman has been designated as America’s man in this process, any acceptance of his role is likely by default rather than design. The administration clearly does not want to allow Suleiman and Mubarak to revert to the status quo ante, or to consolidate a new nakedly military regime. … The Egyptian military seems to have a winning game plan, and it doesn’t include the fundamental reforms for which Egyptian protestors or the Obama administration have called.

It was the picture of man who could not choose between chocolate or vanilla and was simply waiting for the soda jerk to make the decision for him. On the one hand Obama wanted stability, yet on the other hand he wanted change. On the one hand he designated Suleiman to deliver the change, but on the other hand Suleiman was not going to give the president what he wanted. Now, with the latest upsurge in demonstrations, Gibbs’ response reflected that uncertainty.

“I am not going to be the play-by-play announcer, and nor is this administration, about what represents progress in Egypt.

“We will know if progress is being made at a pace in which the Egyptian people believe that is happening,” Gibbs said, adding that protests in Egypt on Tuesday included more people than in the last few days.

Gibbs will know whether it is chocolate or vanilla when it is finally handed to him. Not only Washington, but Cairo was in turmoil. One sign of disarray within the Egyptian government was the near disappearance of their official spokesman, Abdallah Kamal, who is facing a revolt by Egyptian state journalists, claiming they could no longer live on their wages, suggesting people like Kamal had abstracted the funds:

Hundreds of journalists and workers at Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram and Rose Al-Youssef newspapers on Tuesday staged protests against corruption in their respective institutions. They also called for improvement of their financial circumstances. … Rose Al-Youssef employees, for their part, demanded the resignation of Chairman Karam Gabr and Chief Editor Abdallah Kamal, whom they held responsible for institutional mismanagement and deteriorating levels of professionalism. They claimed that employees who were loyal to the upper management received higher salaries than other employees.

Max Boot now wonders in Commentary whether the president’s plan to transition Egypt to a successor regime is working. “There is no guarantee that Suleiman will preside over a transition to a genuine democracy; he may very well work to keep the same ruling clique in power with a new front man — possibly himself. As long as a corrupt oligarchy continues to rule, the people will seethe with discontent. These conditions create a fertile breeding ground for the Muslim Brotherhood, as the past three decades have already shown.” With the administration embarked on a journey which may take them right back to where they started, Boot argues that Obama may have no choice but to cast his bread upon the waters:

At this point, the safest option may well be to make a clean break with Mubarak, inaugurate a transition government, lift the state of emergency, and allow the full blooming of democratic politics. Most analysts knowledgeable about Egyptian politics believe that, under those conditions, the Brotherhood will emerge as a minority party; it has flourished only in an atmosphere of repression because the mosque has been the one part of Egyptian society not fully controlled by the state.

The problem is that “most analysts knowledgeable about Egyptian politics” really have opinions, not knowledge in the absence of an open political process.  In an authoritarian state every political group, both as to their intention and real strength, is an uncertain quantity. The Muslim Brotherhood is like a Chinese box, with one package inside another. Nobody will know what the MB is until it comes out in the open. But by then it will be “no return, no exchange.” Uncertain, too, is the quality of other opposition groups now gathered in Tahrir Square and other parts of the country. The NYT Lede blog notes that some activists are suggesting that the Camp David Peace Treaty be put to a referendum confident that it will be scrapped. The administration is having a hard time influencing events in the Egyptian military. How are they doing in the street?

In the end the administration may have chosen the worst of all worlds: to have thrown in with Mubarak while trying to distance themselves from him; to take a position in solidarity with the protesters without really reaching out to them or knowing who they are. Maybe they should ask Google to text their employee on the platform in Tahrir Square to ask him what is up. But that would be too simple.

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