Since the crisis began, the Obama White House has consistently misread the developments in Egypt. At first, it simply ignored them. Then, from the president on down, the administration issued a series of statements on the situation which were either clearly untrue, irrelevant, myopic, misleading or quickly rendered obsolete by the rapid pace of events.
For example, Vice President Biden’s denial in an interview that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could be called a dictator, and Secretary of State Clinton’s reassurances that the situation was under control at the outset of the protests, would have been laughable if they were not indicative of an American government which was totally clueless about what was happening to one of its most important Arab allies.
OBAMA’S STATEMENT WAS WORSE THAN USELESS
President Obama’s address last Tuesday shortly after Mubarak announced that he would not run for re-election was worse than pointless. By proclaiming to the world that he had just told Mubarak, in a 30-minute phone conversation, that the transition to a new Egyptian government must begin, “now,” Obama highlighted the embarrassing fact that his demands had been summarily rejected. It would have been far better if he had simply said nothing. Instead, his speech further reduced US prestige in the region and the region.
It appears that Obama was panicked into taking this ill-conceived action by news reports from Al Jazeera and CNN predicting that Mubarak would have to resign. But when Mubarak stubbornly refused to step aside, even when Obama directed him to, the American president was left in a quandary. While he desperately wanted to identify himself with the pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets of Cairo, he could not afford to be seen by American allies as abandoning a national leader who has been a reliable linchpin of US policy in the region for the past 30 years.
As a result, his speech, intended to achieve both aims, accomplished neither. Instead, it conveyed the impression that the White House was totally out of touch with the emerging political reality in Egypt.
A MOVEMENT IN SEARCH OF A LEADER
Soon, it became clear that Mubarak had read the situation more accurately than Obama. Rather than the rise of an organized pro-democracy movement, the demonstrations in Cairo’s Liberation Square expressed mostly the frustrations and undefined rage of individuals. Those who claimed to be leading the protest movement were, in fact, mostly representing only themselves.
Over the next few days, as the size of the street protests dwindled, the Egyptian government gradually regained its composure, opened negotiations with opposition leaders, and started to reassert a sense of normalcy in the country, while Mubarak began once again to function as president.
The demonstrations in the streets have continued to ebb and flow. The protesters found a new hero this week, Google executive Wael Ghonim, whose broadcast account of his secret detention by Egyptian police sparked a new round of street protests. Nevertheless, the pro-Mubarak forces still seemed to be holding the upper hand.
WHY MUBARAK IS HOLDING ON
In retrospect, it is no surprise that Mubarak has been able to dig in and cling to power. He utilized the same characteristics which had made him a valuable ally, his steadiness, caution, and refusal to buckle under pressure.
As the head of a country of more than 80 million people, Mubarak was apparently unimpressed when the protesters were unable to muster the one million protesters they had talked about turning out in the streets last week. He also knows that the US is not eager to see the political power in Egypt pass to the Muslim Brotherhood, or even a group of inexperienced pro-democracy advocates whose views on maintaining the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel or countering the growing Iranian influence in the region remain largely unknown.
No doubt, Mubarak and his supporters feel that he deserves better treatment from the US, after he stood by the US and the peace treaty with Israel, in the face of criticism from the rest of the Arab world for so many years, and even contributed Egyptian troops to help fight Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War.
Since last Tuesday, the administration has continued to backtrack from Obama’s demand that the transition to a new government in Egypt must start “now.” The more US leaders have spoken about the situation in Egypt, the more apparent it has become that they have little or no influence over what is going on there.
In more recent statements, Obama and other top US officials have been careful to avoid calling directly for Mubarak to resign. They seem much more concerned that the subsequent transition of power to a new Egyptian government be “orderly,” which is a euphemism for still committed to supporting American interests in the region. Thus, while US officials still talk about supporting Egyptian freedom and democracy, those are now only secondary considerations.
That became embarrassingly clear Monday, when the White House maintained its support for Mubarak’s Vice President, Omar Suleiman, despite his “unacceptable” public statements that Egypt is not yet ready for democracy, Mubarak should stay on as president until the end of his current term in September, and that the emergency law which has been in effect in Egypt for the past 30 years, suspending human rights, should remain in effect.
This position reflects a belated realization that if Mubarak had stepped down precipitously last week, as Obama had demanded, Egypt today would probably be in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, and well on its way to becoming an Islamic state, governed by Sharia law, rather than a democracy. As Secretary of State Clinton put it, Egypt’s pro-democracy movement is still in danger of being “hijacked” by Islamic radicals if change were to come to the country too quickly.
Apparently, the administration has finally taken to heart the warnings that too much US pressure for early elections in Egypt could backfire. That is what happened, in 2006, when US pressure on Israel led to Hamas candidates running in the Palestinian legislative elections and eventually led to a disastrous Hamas victory.
WHO IS IN CHARGE?
Over the past week, the political situation in Egypt has seemed to slowly stabilize.
Hosni Mubarak is still president, but it is not clear whether he is still the one who is actually in charge of the government. Suleiman, Mubarak’s long time confidante and security chief, as well as an Egyptian contact man for the CIA, has taken over the role as the public face of the Egyptian government, but it is not clear how much authority he actually wields.
The US endorsement of Suleiman and his talks with opposition leaders signals that real political action in Egypt has now shifted from the streets to the smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors, where the future of the country is being decided by those with the real power. These include remaining government leaders like Suleiman, the senior officers of the army who have been Egypt’s king-makers for almost sixty years, prominent Egyptian intellectuals and politicians, and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those self-styled opposition leaders who have refused to enter into discussions with Suleiman, and are still calling for Mubarak to leave immediately, are about to be left out in the cold, both figuratively and literally.
SULEIMAN EMERGING AS THE KEY MAN
On Sunday, Suleiman met for the first time with about 50 opposition representatives, including prominent Egyptian politicians, youth organizers and leaders of the previously outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Afterward, Suleiman released a statement claiming that the meeting had produced a “consensus” about the path to reform, including the formation of a committee to recommend constitutional changes by early March to prepare the country for presidential elections.
The statement promised the restoration of full and unhindered Internet access and to stop the interference with journalists who have converged on Cairo from around the world to report on the political crisis.
However, the statement ignored the fundamental demand of the protesters for Mubarak’s immediate ouster as president, and the dissolution of his military-backed dictatorship. As long as Mubarak is allowed to remain president, many of the demonstrators say they will not consider themselves bound by any of the deals made by those who are now negotiating with Suleiman.
Suleiman has also been negotiating with the remaining officials of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, as well as the secretary-general of the liberal opposition Wafd Party.
Furthermore, Suleiman has not responded to a proposal by a group of 30 so-called “wise men,” supposedly representing a cross section of Egyptian society, asking him to take over the running of the government while Mubarak remains on until the election as a figurehead.
Apparently the US is now resigned to allow Mubarak and his allies to manage the transition of power they are now promising, but it is still not at all clear how long that will take, and who will wind up in control of Egypt.
US POSITION STILL MUDDLED
Secretary of State Clinton, speaking at a defense conference in Munich, urged opposition leaders not to reject the talks out of hand and warned that the alternative could be a takeover of Egypt by Islamic radicals.
Clinton warned both sides that if the transition of power is not carried out in an orderly, deliberate way, there are forces “that will try to derail or overtake the process, to pursue their own specific agenda, which is why I think it’s important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed now by Vice President Omar Suleiman.”
But the US message at Munich was muddled once again by remarks from Frank Wisner, a former US diplomat who was dispatched by Obama to Egypt last week as his personal envoy. In remarks transmitted by video link from New York, Wisner told the Munich conference that the Egyptian president should stay in his post for the near future. “President Mubarak remains utterly critical in the days ahead as we sort our way toward the future,” Wisner said.
A senior Obama administration official admitted that Wisner’s comments were “self-evidently divergent from our public message” and “not coordinated with the United States” government. But the fact that the remarks were made by an experienced US diplomat who just days before had been entrusted personally by the president to deal with Mubarak, was just another indication of the extent of the disarray of US policy with regard to what is happening in Egypt.
White House officials claimed that in agreeing to meet with opposition leaders, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and issuing a statement promising a timetable for a variety of democratic reforms to Egypt’s political system, Suleiman was accepting the advice offered to him in a series of phone conversations with Vice President Joe Biden. But White House officials also admitted that it was still not clear whether the proposed reforms will be enough to satisfy the opposition, or exactly how they would be carried out, and by whom.
THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD THREAT
In her Munich remarks, Clinton was hinting at the chief fear of the US, that in pushing out Mubarak, it might be handing over Egypt to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the oldest of the Middle East’s radical Islamic organizations. More to the point, the Muslim Brotherhood founded Hamas in 1987, and shares its opposition to any peace agreement with Israel. If a new Egyptian government refuses to continue honoring the 1978 Camp David peace treaty with Israel, the national security ramifications for Israel would be disastrous. It would also mean the death of any lingering US hopes of reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has cleverly avoided taking a prominent role in the public demonstrations so far. While maintaining a relatively low profile, the Muslim Brotherhood clearly sees the uprising as an opportunity to achieve their ends, which have long been the overthrow of Egypt’s secular, army-dominated secular government. While its leaders now claim to support democracy, the ultimate goal of the Muslim Brotherhood remains the establishment of a Sunni version of the Iranian Islamic theocracy in Egypt.
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood predicted Sunday that the demonstrations would continue “until the political path can have a role in achieving the aspirations of the protesters,” meaning the removal of Mubarak as president. He added that the group decided to join in the opposition talks with Suleiman, “to determine how serious the officials are achieving the demands of the people. The regime keeps saying we’re open to dialogue and the people are the ones refusing, so the Brotherhood decided to examine the situation from all different sides.”
ELBARADEI THE IRANIAN PUPPET
One of the opposition spokesmen who has refused to meet with Suleiman is Mohamed ElBaradei. He is the former head of the UN’s nuclear weapons watchdog organization, the IAEA, and as a career diplomat who has spent most of his time abroad, he has no real support among the Egyptian people. Since returning to Egypt last month, ElBaradei has served as a relatively well-known spokesman for several otherwise obscure Egyptian opposition groups.
He insists that Suleiman represents a government that lacks legitimacy or credibility. “I would not talk to these people until Mubarak steps down,” ElBaradei told the CNN interviewer Fareed Zakaria on Sunday.
In an earlier interview, ElBaradei said, “If the message coming now from Washington is that Mubarak can continue and his head of intelligence will lead the change, this will send the completely wrong message to the Egyptian people.”
ElBaradei has called for the appointment of a three-member presidential council, with only one member drawn from the Egyptian army (such as Suleiman) to oversee a year-long transition “unity” government. “I think any election in the next couple of months–before the right people establish parties and engage — it will be again a fake democracy,” ElBaradei said.
However, ElBaradei’s credentials as a legitimate Egyptian opposition spokesman are suspect, because of his long track record as a supporter and apologist for Iran. During his years at the IAEA, ElBaradei deliberately delayed attempts by the US and its Western allies to get sanctions imposed upon Iran in punishment for its defiance of Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to the Iranian uranium enrichment program. ElBaradei has also, over the years, tried to cover or dismiss the evidence found by his own IAEA inspectors that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons in violation of international law.
Finally, in an interview with an NBC reporter Sunday, ElBaradei again refused to commit himself without reservations to honor Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt were he to become the next Egyptian president.
SULEIMAN WARNS OF “FOREIGN” ELEMENTS
After his meeting with opposition leaders Sunday, Suleiman indicated darkly that the Egyptian revolt was at least partially the result of a breach of security by unnamed but hostile “foreign” elements plotting to “undermine stability” in Egypt. In an interview with ABC News, Suleiman said that the protests by Egyptian youth had been instigated by “an Islamic current” that “comes from abroad.” Addressing the protesters in Liberation Square, in the heart of downtown Cairo, Suleiman told the American interviewer, “We can say only go home. We want to have normal life. We don’t want anybody in the streets. Go to work. Bring back the tourists. Save the economy of the country.” Sunday was the first day in a week that the banks of Cairo re-opened and normal daily commerce began to resume.
Meanwhile, the reduced crowd of protesters still occupying Liberation Square, are digging in for a long stay, with tent, food stalls, music, and separate, religious services.
At one point, early last week, it had seemed as if a swift transition of power from dictatorship to some nascent form of democracy was about to take place, and that the demonstrators would quickly be able to declare victory and go home. Mubarak, who has headed an increasingly corrupt and violent regime for the past 30 years, steadily gave ground to the demands of thousands, then tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of Cairo and other cities across the country.
THE TIPPING POINT THAT WASN’T
The situation appeared to reach a tipping point last Monday, when the leaders of the Egyptian army, which has been the power behind every Egyptian government since 1952, announced that it recognized the rights of Egyptian citizens to engage in peaceful protest. This was preceded by Mubarak’s appointment, for the first time ever, of a potential successor, who was not his son Gamal, whom the president had been grooming to take over his post, but rather Suleiman, whom the leaders of the US and Israel knew and trusted, at least to an extent.
Then, last Tuesday night, came the much anticipated announcement by Mubarak on state television that he would not run for re-election for a sixth term as president in elections which had been scheduled for September. He even claimed that he had never intended to run for re-election.
However, instead of turning over the reigns of power immediately, Mubarak said that he intended to remain as president to personally oversee Egypt’s transition to democracy, something that is unacceptable to all of the protestors in the streets. He suggested that the schedule for the elections would be accelerated, but gave no specific date, and made it clear that even after stepping down as president, he had no intention of going into exile, and that he was determined to die, as a loyal patriot, on Egyptian soil.
SULEIMAN DEMONIZES THE MEDIA
After Mubarak’s speech, the government resumed its efforts to split the opposition movement. The government-controlled media called upon moderate Egyptians to abandon the street demonstrations and go home, while the inside players and power brokers worked out the details of transition to a new government the old fashioned way, behind closed doors.
Vice President Suleiman set the stage for a new round of violence in the streets of Egypt, by openly criticizing the international media whose reporters and cameramen had provided saturation 24/7 coverage of the Egyptian revolt since it started. The next day, as the protesters refused to heed the government’s call to disband and go home, there suddenly appeared in Liberation Square organized gangs of armed “counter-protesters,” swinging clubs and inflicting mayhem on both the protesters and the media reporters covering the event.
Perhaps the most dramatic news pictures of the past two weeks were those of a pro-Mubarak agitators on horseback and camelback, galloping through Liberation Square riding down on the protesters, as well as a cell phone video of a van driven by Mubarak supporters which deliberately ran over two of the protesters who survived, apparently without serious injury.
The government-instigated violence and the targeting of media reporters elicited a fresh international outcry against the Egyptian government, which responded by lowering the profile of, but not eliminating, its ongoing attempts to intimidate opposition leaders and reporters.
THE EGYPTIAN ARMY IN THE MIDDLE
Meanwhile, the only group in Egypt with the power to move the situation rapidly forward to a resolution, the Egyptian army, is still sitting on the fence. Its tanks had taken to the streets last week after police failed to disburse the demonstrators and abandoned their posts. But the army has not openly taken sides, and its leaders have called for calm, even as events continue to unfold unpredictably from day to day.
As the street demonstrations continue, with diminished attendance compared to last week’s turnouts, the army is finding it increasingly difficult to keep from taking sides. Maintaining an ostensibly neutral position is vital if the army is to retain its influence in the delicate negotiations between the opposition leaders, the government, and keenly interested foreign powers, chiefly the US.
The leaders of the Egyptian army have a major stake in the outcome. A transition to a true democracy in Egypt would mean the end of almost 60 years of continuous rule of the country by leaders who all came from the top ranks of the armed forces, including Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The army has managed to retain its popularity with the masses, even when Sadat and now Mubarak fell out of public favor, by maintaining a low profile. For example, the repression of all serious opponents to Mubarak’s regime in recent years has come from entirely the police and the security forces controlled by the Interior Ministry. But the longer the current impasse continues between the protesters and the government, the greater the pressure that will be exerted on the army to choose sides.
There was another test of the army’s neutrality over the weekend, when protesters started making preparations for a long stay in Liberation Square by building barricades and bringing in food and other supplies. At a checkpoint over the Kasr al-Nil bridge crossing the Nile leading into downtown Cairo, the army told demonstrators that they – but not the food they were carrying — could enter the square. In response, demonstrators staged a sit-in, chanting in Arabic “sit in, sit in, until they let the food in.” After several hundred demonstrators joined the protest, the army officers at the checkpoint relented, and allowed the protesters and their supplies to enter the area.
US RUNNING OUT OF TIME AND OPTIONS
US leaders fear that the longer the standoff continues unresolved between the government and the protestors in the streets, the more likely the US will not like the outcome. On Saturday night, protesters in Liberation Square displayed a large banner that read: “No Mubarak, no Suleiman. Both are American Agents.” Referring to Mubarak, they chanted, “No negotiations before he leaves.”
However, as the scene of the real action shifts to the negotiations with Suleiman, it appears that the voices of the protesters in the streets of Egypt will not have the final say over who eventually emerges in control of the country.