“A chance to move beyond rhetoric to support the democratic movement sweeping over Egypt”Posted: January 31, 2011
From Sunday. LA Times Babylon & Beyond blog:
More than 80 American academics, including Noam Chomsky and several California scholars, posted an open letter online Sunday to President Obama [...]
Here’s the open letter, as posted on the Institute for Public Accuracy site:
Dear President Obama:
As political scientists, historians, and researchers in related fields who have studied the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, we the undersigned believe you have a chance to move beyond rhetoric to support the democratic movement sweeping over Egypt. As citizens, we expect our president to uphold those values.
For thirty years, our government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain the system the Egyptian people are now trying to dismantle. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Egypt and around the world have spoken. We believe their message is bold and clear: Mubarak should resign from office and allow Egyptians to establish a new government free of his and his family’s influence. It is also clear to us that if you seek, as you said Friday “political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” your administration should publicly acknowledge those reforms will not be advanced by Mubarak or any of his adjutants.
There is another lesson from this crisis, a lesson not for the Egyptian government but for our own. In order for the United States to stand with the Egyptian people it must approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy. On Friday you rightly said that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” For that reason we urge your administration to seize this chance, turn away from the policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. And we call on you to undertake a comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt and all other societies of the region.
Earlier on Sunday, the Carnegie Endowment published the following statement from its Working Group on Egypt, urging for free and fair elections and recommending a suspension of economic and military aid to Egypt until certain conditions that would ensure a free and fair election are met:
Amidst the turmoil in Egypt, it is important for the United States to remain focused on the interests of the Egyptian people as well as the legitimacy and stability of the Egyptian government.
Only free and fair elections provide the prospect for a peaceful transfer of power to a government recognized as legitimate by the Egyptian people. We urge the Obama administration to pursue these fundamental objectives in the coming days and press the Egyptian government to:
- call for free and fair elections for president and for parliament to be held as soon as possible;
- amend the Egyptian Constitution to allow opposition candidates to register to run for the presidency;
- immediately lift the state of emergency, release political prisoners, and allow for freedom of media and assembly;
- allow domestic election monitors to operate throughout the country, without fear of arrest or violence;
- immediately invite international monitors to enter the country and monitor the process leading to elections, reporting on the government’s compliance with these measures to the international community; and
- publicly declare that Hosni Mubarak will agree not to run for re-election.
We further recommend that the Obama administration suspend all economic and military assistance to Egypt until the government accepts and implements these measures.
The Working Group on Egypt is a nonpartisan initiative bringing substantial expertise on Egyptian politics and political reform, and aimed at ensuring that Egypt’s elections are free and fair and open to opposition candidates.
Laura Rozen’s report on the Egypt working group’s statement provides further insight:
A bipartisan group of former U.S. officials and foreign policy scholars is urging the Obama administration to suspend all economic and military aid to Egypt until the government agrees to carry out early elections and to suspend Egypt’s draconian state of emergency, which has been in place for decades.
“We are paying the price for the fact that the administration has been at least of two minds on this stuff, and we should have seen it coming,” said Robert Kagan, co-chair of the bipartisan Egypt working group, regarding what many analysts now say is the inevitable end of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year reign as Egypt’s president.
Though the Obama administration has tried to look like it’s not picking sides in urging restraint from violence amid five days of Egyptian unrest calling for Mubarak to step down, “the U.S. can’t be seen as neutral when it’s giving a billion and a half dollars” to prop up the Mubarak regime, Kagan said.
And, from Zaid Jilani at Think Progress:
The position of the Obama administration has been unclear. While administration officials have condemned abuses of civil liberties, they’ve also fallen short of endorsing Mubarak’s ouster or ending support for the regime, with Vice President Joe Biden even going as far as to say that Mubarak isn’t a dictator.
The United States gives nearly $2 billion in aid to the Egyptian regime every year, and offers diplomatic and military cooperation that helps bolster Mubarak. As protesters continue to be beaten, tortured, and killed by internal security forces, it’s important to know that these abuses are being subsidized by U.S. taxpayer dollars. Threatening to reduce or eliminate this monetary assistance to the Egyptian regime would be a powerful tool that the United States could use to help advance democracy and promote freedom in the country.
In light of the open letter from Chomsky et al and the statement from the CEIP’s working group on Egypt, I thought it might be helpful to recap what the Obama Administration said yesterday.
In all her appearances on the Sunday morning shows (video to each interview at the link, courtesy of stacyx), Secretary Clinton began the US call for an “orderly transition” in Egypt.
…with David Gregory on NBC Meet the Press:
What we’re saying is that any efforts by this government to respond to the needs of their people, to take steps that will result in a peaceful, orderly transition to a democratic regime, is what is in the best interests of everyone, including the current government.
…with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday:
Well, we have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy, and we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about. We also want to see an orderly transition.
…with Bob Schieffer on CBS Face the Nation:
And therefore, we would like to encourage that people who have been the voice of protest and been the voice of civil society be the ones at the table trying to design what would be an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people.
…with Candy Crowley on CNN State of the Union:
There are many steps that can be taken by reaching out to those who have advocated a peaceful, orderly transition to greater democracy where the Egyptian people themselves get to express their views. That’s what we wish to see.
…with Christiane Amanpour on ABC This Week — Hillary didn’t use the term but said essentially the same thing as “orderly transition” here:
But right now, we are trying to convey a message that is very clear – that we want to ensure there is no violence and no provocation that results in violence, and that we want to see these reforms and a process of national dialogue begun so that the people of Egypt can see their legitimate grievances addressed.
Soon after Secretary Clinton’s appearances, we got word that President Obama had also called for an ‘orderly transition’ in speaking with Middle East and other world leaders:
President Barack Obama voiced support for an “orderly transition” in Egypt that is responsive to the aspirations of Egyptians in phone calls with foreign leaders, the White House said on Sunday.
Obama spoke by phone on Saturday with Saudi King Abdullah, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and on Sunday to British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Getting back to Hillary’s interviews… Christiane Amanpour got right down to business and asked the military aid question straight off the bat:
QUESTION: Perhaps no one is watching this situation more closely than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and she joins us this morning from the State Department. Has the United States Administration, whether yourself, whether the President or Secretary Gates, told the Egyptian Government specifically that any military crackdown will result in a cutoff of U.S. military assistance?
SECRETARY CLINTON: No. Right now, we’re monitoring the actions of the Egyptian military and they are, as I’m sure your contacts are telling you, demonstrating restraint, working to try to differentiate between peaceful protestors, whom we all support, and potential looters and other criminal elements who are obviously a danger to the Egyptian people. We have sent a very clear message that we want to see restraint. We do not want to see violence by any security forces. And we continue to convey that message. There is no discussion as of this time about cutting off any aid. We always are looking and reviewing our aid.
Remember, this is what the WH had said on Friday:
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Friday that the U.S. will review its aid to Egypt. “We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days,” Gibbs said.
I’d say the Administration is doing more hedging than “reviewing.”
Hillary finally mentioned “free and fair elections” in the context of the current situation in Egypt and unless I missed something earlier in the week, that would make her the first person from the Administration to do so. From her CNN appearance:
SECRETARY CLINTON: Again, Candy, this is going to be up to the Egyptian people. But let’s look at what we have. We have a calendar that already has elections for the next president scheduled. So there is an action-enforcing event that is already on the calendar. Can there be efforts made to really respond to the political desires of the people so that such an election is free and fair and credible?
David Gregory pressed Hillary on the issue:
Are you calling upon Egypt to call for free and fair elections, and will you ask Mubarak to say unequivocally that he will not run?
SECRETARY CLINTON: We have been urging free and fair election for many years. I mean, I do think it’s important to recognize that through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, America’s message has been consistent. We want to see free and fair elections, and we expect that that will be one of the outcomes of what is going on in Egypt right now. So we have been sending that message over and over again, publicly and privately, and we continue to do so.
And, on CBS, here’s what Hillary had to say:
Let’s begin to see some meetings with representatives of the government and representatives of civil society. Let’s begin to see some steps taken that will lead toward free, fair, and credible elections in the future.
I know not everyone at Sky Dancing agrees, but I think calling for free and fair elections was an important step for Hillary to take in signaling distance between the Obama Administration and Mubarak. It begins to signal that distance without anyone from the Administration having to explicitly or even implicitly call for Mubarak’s resignation.
Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei (via the Washington Post):
“To ask a dictator to implement democratic measures after 30 years in power is an oxymoron,” ElBaradei said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “It will not end until Mubarak leaves.”
The LA Times reports that the White House is quietly preparing for a post-Mubarak era in Egypt:
A tight-lipped White House is taking an even-handed approach to the crisis in Egypt, suggesting that President Mubarak might be able to hold onto power if he allows competitive elections and restores individual freedoms. But inside the Obama administration, there are signs that officials are preparing for a post-Mubarak era after three decades.
One former senior administration advisor said he had spoken to his old colleagues inside the Obama administration in recent days about the unrest in Egypt. As early as last Wednesday, the Obama administration recognized that they would not be able to prop up the Mubarak regime and keep it in power at all costs, the former official said.
That timeline at the end seems odd given Biden’s gaffe on Thursday saying Mubarak isn’t a dictator. “As early as last Wednesday” sounds like damage control to me.
“They don’t want to push Mubarak over the cliff, but they understand that the Mubarak era is over and that the only way Mubarak could be saved now is by a ruthless suppression of the population, which would probably set the stage for a much more radical revolution down the road.”
The White House has yet to convince Pulitzer-prize winning historian and biographer Kai Bird. Over at slate.com, Bird warns of Obama’s “Shaw Problem” and says the president appears to be following Carter’s footsteps in trying to have it both ways:
President Barack Obama has a “Shah problem” in Egypt. Recent events in Egypt recall the street protests of 1978 in Tehran when President Jimmy Carter had to decide whether to remain loyal to the Pahlavi regime, a long-standing American-backed dictatorship—or whether the time had come to abandon the Shah and support a popular uprising demanding human rights and democracy. Carter tried to have it both ways, modulating his support for the Shah, calling for political liberalization, and warning the Shah against the use of state violence against unarmed protesters. Obama seems to be following the same script, and the results may well turn out to be equally fraught with unintended consequences.
Bird goes on to say:
Given this reality, how should the Obama administration respond to the current crisis? It is imperative that Washington finds a way to place itself on the side of those political forces advocating change and reform—despite America’s historical baggage of temporizing with Arab kings and dictators. Similar popular demonstrations are already taking place in other Arab nations, and Obama needs to make it clear that America is not aligned with the Arab status quo. Essentially, we need to let the dictators fall or stand without our interference. We need to signal that America’s interests in the Middle East are not driven by our addiction to oil. Washington should clearly say it will support any regime that comes to power through legitimate elections—even if it is the Brotherhood.
…and therein lies the crux of the problem for many American observers, it seems.
At the end of an otherwise predictable column pushing yet again the false choice between “another Khomeini” and “another Nasser,” even conservative Ross Douthat seems to acknowledge that for all our worries, it isn’t our place to control ‘who fills the void’:
The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.
Returning to Kai Bird’s piece, Bird offers this assessment:
Change is coming to the Arab world. It can no longer be held back. So the pragmatist and not just the idealist in Obama would be wise to make it clear that he really is on the side of the protesters in the streets of Cairo. It is time to stop hedging our bets.
In contrast to that take, via AFP/Raw Story:
Denis Bauchard of the French International Relations Institute (IFRI) said US President “Barack Obama has taken the lead, calling for political reform, without sparing Mubarak, and that’s quite smart.”
I’m not sure when exactly Obama did all that.
If ever there was an American President who should have been able to unhesitatingly penetrate the Egyptian protests with American purpose and stand with the people, however cloaked in diplo-speak at first, it should have been Pres. Barack Obama and his administration. His Cairo speech held these possibilities.
Now the foreign policy community is taking the lead, along with the leaders of UK-France-Germany, pushing Obama to a position that was once hinted to be a natural inclination for him to make. Instead he seems permanently afflicted with the inability to take a jump and lead, which in a situation as fraught as the collapse of Mubarak is more obvious.
Taylor ends with this:
Obama’s made a tough situation worse through his own Middle East foreign policy. Tactical and reactive responses aren’t a substitute for a regional strategy grounded in what America stands for in the Middle East. Now everything depends on playing it by ear as the situation develops. It’s a risky way to run the world.
Egypt may be leaderless, but we have a void of leadership on our side as well.
Hillary did the best she could in evolving the Administration’s position yesterday, but I can’t say that I have seen any evidence that Obama is ready to “seize” the chance to “move beyond rhetoric” and “turn away from the policies that brought us here.”
On Friday, former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk gave Obama the following advice:
But here’s the horrible dilemma that President Obama now finds himself in. If he distances the United States from Mubarak, he risks toppling a critically important Arab ally which could generate a tsunami of instability that could shake the foundations of all of America’s autocratic Arab allies across the region. Yet if he does not distance the U.S. from the Egyptian pharaoh, he risks alienating the Egyptian people, helping to open the way to a theocratic regime that would be fundamentally anti-American.
Fortunately, we know the consequences of being on the wrong side of history, because we have been living with them ever since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1978 and his replacement by the anti-American ayatollahs. The Shah, like Mubarak, represented a strategic pillar, protecting U.S. interests in the critically important Persian Gulf. Jimmy Carter pressed the Shah to undertake political reforms and respect the human rights of his people, but then backed off for the sake of stability. Similarly, George W. Bush pressed Mubarak to open up political space for a moderate Egyptian opposition to emerge and then backed off after Hamas won the Palestinian elections.
At this point, facing by far the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency, Obama cannot afford to backtrack. Yesterday, he came out publicly on the side of the Egyptian people, insisting that Mubarak undertake significant reforms. But it is surely clear by now that the people will settle for nothing less than the removal of Mubarak. So Obama’s options are narrowing. He will soon have to decide whether to tell Mubarak that the United States no longer supports him and that it’s time for him to go.
Indyk goes on to say:
Fortunately, Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman, the head of Military Intelligence, as his vice president and successor, has made it more possible for Obama to pursue this option with less fear of the potential destabilizing consequences. The United States has a good deal of leverage on the Egyptian military because we have trained, equipped and paid for their armaments. They now hold the key to a positive resolution of this crisis. Mubarak may have appointed Suleiman to shore up military support for his presidency, but he is now dependent on the same military for his survival and they may be willing to abandon him to ensure their own.
That’s the door on which Obama now needs to push. Suleiman needs to be encouraged to take over as Egypt’s new president, order the military to prevent looting but not harm the demonstrators, and announce that he will only serve for six months until free and fair elections allow for a legitimate president to form a new government. If he can put this understanding in place, Obama then needs to call Mubarak and tell him gently but firmly that for the good of his country it’s time for him to go.
Yesterday, bostonboomer did some amazing investigative work connecting the dots on “Omar Suleiman and the U.S. Rendition and Torture Program,” at the end of which she noted:
So if representatives of the Obama administration (including SOS Hillary Clinton) begin touting Suleiman as a good replacement for Mubarak, we should be very very suspicious.
I’m not sure if touting Suleiman as an interim president for six months is much better.
At enduringamerica.com, the liveblog for today’s events in Egypt is aptly titled “So What is an ‘Orderly Transition’?” From their summary of yesterday’s events:
Instead, the regime put out the news that police would reappear on city streets today, and last night Mubarak put out the message via State TV, “The current stage requires us to reorganize the country’s priorities in a way that acknowledges the legitimate demands of the people”. He commanded new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to pursue “a wide range of dialogue with all the (political) parties” to “achieve the democratic process.”
Mubarak also called on new government leaders to “stand against anyone committing any forms of corruption” and stressed “the necessity to continue with fair, serious and effective new steps for more political, constitutional and legislative reforms”.
The steps, on the surface, may satisfy the Obama Administration’s demands — made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on television and by the PR machine through the news that the President had called foreign leaders — for the display of moves to reform. It is unclear, however, if Washington’s demand for “orderly transition” means more than reform with the promise by Mubarak that he is standing down — if so, US officials are keeping this implicit for now.
What is clear is that Mubarak does not see the definition of “transition” as his hopping on the next plane out of Cairo. And that in turn brings us back to the opposition, now symbolised in Tahrir Square. This morning the talk is of “a million-person demonstration“, called by the opposition 6 April movement, from the Square.
I suppose we’re going to find out what an “orderly transition” means to Washington, Mubarak, and most importantly the Egyptian people in the coming days. I have to say, though, that waiting for Barack Obama to “move beyond rhetoric” and “lead” is like waiting for Sarah Palin to become a policy wonk.