Washington Fumbles Egypt Messaging

Only four days ago, the administration of President Barack Obama appeared to be siding with the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators calling for a quick end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, even if it didn’t call explicitly for the Egyptian president to resign.

But with the protests in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities about to enter their third week, Washington appears to have accepted that Mubarak will be around for a while longer, if not until September’s presidential elections in which he has pledged not to run.

Moreover, the administration now appears fully on board with Vice President Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former intelligence chief and a long-time confidant of Mubarak himself, and other former senior military officers who dominate Egypt’s “new” government to oversee the kind of “orderly transition” that has become an administration mantra over the last week.

That was clear by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Saturday when she told the annual Security Conference in Munich that Washington and its allies should “send a consistent message supporting the orderly transition that has begun.”

“[T]here are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, 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 by now Vice President Omar Suleiman,” she said.

She was speaking shortly before the administration’s special envoy to Mubarak, former ambassador Frank Wisner, a retired senior foreign service officer, addressed the same conference by video-link from his residence in New York City, to which he had just returned after several days in Cairo, purportedly aimed at nudging the Egyptian president out the door.

But, in a serious embarrassment to the administration’s efforts to distance itself from Mubarak, Wisner, who, it subsequently turned out, has been consulting for a high-priced U.S. law firm that represents the Egyptian government, failed to stick to the script.

“We need to get a national consensus around the preconditions for the next step forward,” he told the conference. “The president must stay in office to steer those changes. I believe President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical.”

While the State Department and Wisner himself later insisted that he was giving only his personal views and not speaking for the administration, his remarks – and the fact that he had just returned from Egypt on a mission undertaken at the White House’s behest – clearly reversed any progress Washington had made in persuading the demonstrators that it was in their side.

Indeed, chants of “Down with America” were heard for the first time Monday from the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, according to reports from Associated Press.

Even before the weekend’s statements, foreign policy experts were complaining that Washington’s policy and the way it was being communicated were not inspiring confidence either in Egypt or in the region.

“[T]he Obama White House hasn’t helped matters by shifting policy ground almost daily, causing confusion, and thereby squandering America’s credibility and limited but precious influence,” argued Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Gelb’s frequent columns on the Daily Beast website have focused on fears that the Muslim Brotherhood – no doubt the group that Clinton was referring to when she mentioned “forces” that could “derail or overtake” the transition process – could yet emerge in control if the process turns “disorderly.”

But other analysts – particularly those who have been most sympathetic to the protesters’ demands – are increasingly concerned that the force most likely to derail the process or take control is in fact the senior and retired leadership of the military, which is not known for its democratic sympathies.

“On issues that matter, there is little difference between Mubarak, his vice president Omar Suleiman, or Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi,” wrote Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “All spent their careers in security organizations defending the state; all distrust the Egyptian public’s instincts.”

Many analysts believe that Suleiman and the army’s leadership are in fact taking control already and that they will strongly resist sharing it, even as they try to avoid a violent showdown with the demonstrators so as to appease Washington and avoid the risk that conscripts would refuse orders to fire on fellow Egyptians.

“Before the uprising in Egypt began, the military ruled from behind the curtain while elites, represented by public relations firms and buoyed by snappy slogans, initiated neo-liberal economic policies throughout Egypt,” wrote Joshua Stacher, an expert on Egypt and Arab authoritarian states at Kent State University on CFR’s Foreign Affairs website in an article titled “Egypt’s Democratic Mirage.”

“In this latest rendering, with Suleiman at the helm, the state’s objective of restoring a structure of rule by military managers is not even concealed. This sort of ‘orderly transition’ in post-Mubarak Egypt is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation,” predicted Stacher, one of a group of Egypt experts who met with senior White House officials a week ago.

That concern was echoed by a prominent neoconservative, Robert Kagan, a member of a bipartisan “Working Group on Egypt” that called last week for Washington to freeze the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. provides annually to Egypt after it became clear that the army had permitted – if not orchestrated – attacks by paid thugs and plain-clothes security personnel on unarmed demonstrators in the square and rounded up journalists and human rights activists.

“I fear the administration is heading toward acceptance of the perpetuation of the Egyptian dictatorship in all but name,” Kagan, currently based at the Brookings Institution, told Politico.com Monday.

Fareed Zakaria, an influential realist who ordinarily finds himself at odds with neoconservatives on the Middle East, expressed similar fears, agreeing with Stacher that “the military is consolidating its power” over the country, in part by making businessmen and the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), including Mubarak’s son, Gamal, “scapegoats.”

“If Washington is now perceived as brokering a deal that keeps a military dictatorship in power in Egypt, de jure or de facto, the result will be deep disappointment and frustration on the streets of Cairo,” he warned.

“Over time, it will make opposition to the regime and to the United States more hard-line, more religious, and more violent,” he added, suggesting that Washington’s worst nightmare – that Egypt in 2011 could follow the path taken by Iran in 1979 – would then become plausible.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.