Obama ignored by Mubarak -- again
One can scarcely imagine how the U.S. in its handling of the Egyptian revolution could look more inept and less effective. If the stakes were not so high the last few weeks would be material for high farce. (And indeed, a recounting of events by a faux "Joe Biden" does just that.)
Initial caution was followed by insistence that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "transition now." That, in turn, morphed into agreement to a very gradual transition. But Mubarak has let it be known he's taking no direction from anyone and going nowhere, at least not now.
Early in the day Obama seemed optimistic that all was on track, and comments from CIA director Leon Panetta seemed to indicate Mubarak was on his way out. But, once again, the administration was blindsided by Mubarak.
The Post reports:
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ceded some authority to his vice president Thursday but refused to quit, insisting that he would stay in office to oversee a drawn-out transfer of power. His defiance stunned and angered hundreds of thousands of protesters in the capital, who responded with chants of "revolution, revolution."
Enormous crowds, which had gathered in anticipation that Mubarak would announce his resignation in a televised address, expressed disappointment and fury as the message sunk in that the president had no intention of leaving. Some masses moved tentatively toward the heavily guarded state television tower, while others vowed to march on the presidential palace.
Mubarak has transferred some authority to his vice president, but he's not heeding the administration's call to move off stage, and he certainly isn't leaving promptly as the protesters demand.
After Mubarak's defiant speech, Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) issued a statement that read, in part:
"The U.S. should be focused on strengthening responsible independent actors who will continue to enforce Egypt's international obligations, and will serve as credible alternatives to the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, the U.S. must be clear that we will not engage the Muslim Brotherhood, nor will we give support to a government that includes them.
I am concerned that Mubarak's insistence in continuing to control all political activity in Egypt, rather than providing for stability, may enable the Muslim Brotherhood to manipulate Egyptian frustration to gain greater influence. I hope the Egyptian people will not allow themselves to become pawns of extremists."
She's gotten to the nub of the matter: it's not a call for democracy or Mubarak's speedy transition that risks empowering the Muslim Brotherhood; it is, rather, Mubarak's prolonged tenure that carries the threat of an Islamist resurgence. Elliott Abrams, who testified before her committee, writes today:
For thirty years he ruled under an emergency law that he used to crush all moderate and centrist parties. Not a single significant step toward democracy was taken during all those years of quiet. He will leave behind a Muslim Brotherhood stronger now than when he came to power. Under him, Egypt's prestige and influence in the Arab League and throughout the region have declined to an historic low. To hang on these extra months he has thrust the country into chaos. The longer it continues the harder it will be for Egypt to find a path to real democracy. And the easier it will be for extremists to seize the opportunities that chaos always presents.
As for the administration, all Obama -- who has been rebuffed at every turn by Mubarak and now stands aligned with a government that has enraged the population -- could do was issue oft-repeated admonitions. He concluded:
The Egyptian people have made it clear that there is no going back to the way things were: Egypt has changed, and its future is in the hands of the people. Those who have exercised their right to peaceful assembly represent the greatness of the Egyptian people, and are broadly representative of Egyptian society. We have seen young and old, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian join together, and earn the respect of the world through their non-violent calls for change. In that effort, young people have been at the forefront, and a new generation has emerged. They have made it clear that Egypt must reflect their hopes, fulfill their highest aspirations, and tap their boundless potential. In these difficult times, I know that the Egyptian people will persevere, and they must know that they will continue to have a friend in the United States of America.
It is, however, hardly a friendship worth having for those on the streets. Obama has, if anything, emboldened Mubarak and confirmed that the U.S. lacks an understanding of, let alone the ability to, influence events.
More important, what does the administration do now? We've wagged fingers and stamped feet but to no avail. There is no sign Obama has a back-up plan. And now the danger mounts. Former State Department official Christian Whiton writes:
So far, President Obama has failed the test of presidential leadership during the revolution. He seems unable or unwilling to articulate U.S. interests, much less how to use the tools of government to advance them. It is not too late for him to change course. But until he does this, his actions are making the worst-case scenario of an Islamist Egypt more likely.
The major challenges that confront Obama -- job creation, Middle East unrest, fiscal discipline -- all appear to be above his pay grade. His words are of limited and diminishing utility. And the distinguishing characteristic of this administration is now confusion. As Iran did to Jimmy Carter, Egypt's crisis now threatens to subsume the rest of the agenda. And even worse (as the gulf oil spill did), it may come to symbolize a presidency that lacks the skill and insight needed to manage a crisis and shape events.
| February 11, 2011; 9:16 AM ET
Categories: foreign policy
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