The Obama Administration Needs to Get on the Right Side on Egypt

Washington eyes a fateful day in Egypt | Marc Lynch

 

Washington’s hesitation isn’t hard to understand: for all the energy and passion on the street, Mubarak’s regime very well could survive and would remember well any wavering of U.S. support. Other regimes in the region might be quite concerned if the U.S. failed to back its long time ally. And popular movements which might replace Mubarak would not likely be as supportive on foreign policy, putting at risk key U.S. policies such as the blockade of Gaza. It’s easy for me, as an analyst, to push the United States to be forceful in support of the Egyptian protestors but I can understand why the administration appears cautious. That said, the arguments for caution are crumbling rapidly.

Mubarak’s regime has been wounded at its core, and even if he survives in the short run the regime will have to make major internal changes to regain any semblance of normality. An Egyptian regime which spends the next years in a state of military lockdown will hardly be a useful ally. It’s not like there’s an active peace process to compromise. The Islamist scarecrow shouldn’t work, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s limited role in events (despite the efforts of the Egyptian regime to claim otherwise).

More broadly the costs to the Obama administration with Arab public opinion of being on the wrong side of this issue will be enormous. This isn’t about the “magical democracy words” of the past few years — it’s about a moment of flux when real change is possible, whether or not the United States wants it. Accepting Mubarak’s fierce gambit now would put an end to any claim the United States has of promoting democracy and reform for a generation, and alienating the rising youth generation on which the administration has placed so much emphasis. It would also make Cairo the graveyard of Obama’s Cairo speech and efforts to rebuild relations with the Muslims of the world. The United States will be better positioned to push such changes in the right direction if it maintains a strong and principled position today — regardless of whether Mubarak or someone else ends up in control. The cautious strategy right now is the same as the principled one, whether Mubarak falls or if he survives.

The Obama administration has handled developments in the Arab world skillfully over the last month. It has done a good job of siding with the universal demands for freedom and political rights, without taking overt sides. It has wisely avoided trying to stamp the events as “made in America.” Now conditions are changing rapidly, and now is the time for the administration to move to a new level. I’m hoping that we’ll soon hear some strong words from administration officials about Egypt.

UPDATE, 11:40am:   Secretary Clinton is now scheduled to give a statement on Egypt in about 10 minutes.   Good.  I know that a lot of Arabs are disappointed with Obama’s perceived silence on Egypt over the last few days (and furious over Biden’s comment) but there’s a long way to go.    The Obama administration is going to have to play a key role in talking Mubarak down if it comes to that, and the right intervention there would be at least as important, probably more important, than public statements.  There is a longer game here than posturing for the cameras — getting this right is the point. 

 

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