Washington Plays for Time in Egypt and the Arab World

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A new dawn broke in Tunis with the ouster of its long-time corrupt dictator. After years of repression, news organizations suddenly were allowed to criticize the government. Committees were formed in parliament to create laws allowing independent political parties and to make democratic changes to the constitution. The hated State Security Court was disbanded in favor of the regular judicial process. Democracy was sweeping Tunisia and it was all thanks to the country’s reformist new leader: Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

That was how the New York Times reported the situation back in December 1987, a month after Ben Ali ousted Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s iron-fisted ruler since the end of French colonialism in the late 50s. Political change is not always what it seems in the Arab world. As Tunisia celebrates the ouster of the dictatorial Ben Ali 23 years later, and the world watches with awe as protestors in Cairo, Amman and Sana’a rise up against their oppressors, change is once again sweeping the Arab world. But from the Western perspective it is not clear whether to fret about it or to embrace it.

In truth, Washington has to do both, since it has little or no control over the situation, especially in the most volatile of the uprisings, in Egypt. “What happens [there] is truly up to the Egyptian people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on CNN Sunday. The weak hand is all the more stark because so much is at stake for Washington in the crisis. In Egypt, the U.S. has an important partner in counterterrorism operations, a key interlocutor in the Arab-Israeli peace process and a pliant granter of overflight rights and passage through the Suez for troops. Yemen’s festering al Qaeda affiliate is the most active terrorist threat the U.S. faces right now. And in Lebanon, where political change is also afoot, the danger of war with Israel is real.

Having concluded early on that they have little ability to control day-to-day events in any of these countries, officials at State and the White House are trying to map out a strategy to influence the coming months. That means avoiding picking sides to avoid alienating whoever may emerge in power; citing first principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which Egypt and others are signatories even though they uphold them only rhetorically); and say just enough to keep that most important constituency—Americans—off the backs of top officials.

The administration took this cautious approach from the start with Tunisia, after Ben Ali fled Jan. 14 to Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blandly said the U.S. was monitoring the situation, decried violence on all sides and noted that it was a “moment of significant transition in Tunisia.” 11 days later she took questions from reporters about the demonstrations in Egypt and said the U.S. assessment was that, “the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

That raised eyebrows at home and abroad, and Clinton took the opportunity to dial it back a notch the following day when she made a statement calling for restraint and “supporting the universal rights of the Egyptian people.” She further said “the Egyptian Government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

There is no reason to think either Clinton’s initial, nominally pro-Mubarak statement, nor her second nominally pro-demonstrators statement had the slightest effect on events. Those events are driven on the one hand by years of welled-up anger among protestors against a corrupt regime and on the other by that regime’s desperate attempts at survival. Neither group is particularly susceptible to American blandishment. What Clinton’s statements did do was respond to domestic American reactions to events.

And the administration kept it up. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called for free and fair elections in Egypt, something that has not been among the foremost demands of the protesters, but which resonates domestically. On Friday, he got a little more serious, saying “We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days.” That nominally put in play the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to the country, and could be seen as leverage against violence by the regime or the military, which is its primary beneficiary.

It is also a statement of blinding obviousness: should, for example, Egypt’s largest and best organized political opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, come to power, there is little doubt the U.S. would review its “assistance posture,” given that the group has produced such figures as the number two leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Later in the day, after Mubarak laid out his classic strongman response to events, Obama called him and spoke with him for 30 minutes. The read-out was right on message, and Obama sent the same signals on-the-record in a statement from the White House that evening. He called on the Egyptian authorities to respect universal human rights and on the protestors to remain non-violent. “Ultimately,” Obama said, “The future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people.” If Obama made any attempt to directly effect Mubarak’s decisions, there was no indication of it. On Saturday he huddled with his national security team to discuss developments.

The U.S. is dodging taking sides in Egypt and elsewhere for obvious reasons: they know as well as anyone that after years of supression, political opposition and civil society in these countries is fractured and weak and the outcome of the turmoil is therefore completely unpredictable. That being the case, they don’t want to offend anyone who may come to power. At the same time they want to avoid the kind of political fallout at home that followed Obama’s delayed support for Iran’s protesters in June 2009, and his tepid response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia during the presidential campaign in 2008.

The administration is looking for places it can gain some influence. As Mubarak’s hold on power grew more tenuous over the weekend, Clinton said in multiple appearances Sunday that the U.S. wants to see an “orderly transition” in Egypt. This reflects the administration’s growing conclusion that Mubarak cannot win or steal Presidential elections slated for September. The best Washington can hope is that some slow process susceptible to American diplomatic influence will emerge from the chaos on the streets of Egypt and the Arab world.