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Obama's Risky Path in Egypt

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
January 27, 2011
The Daily Beast

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Obama administration officials say they are not taking sides between President Hosni Mubarak, America's key ally in the Arab world, and the street protesters who purportedly represent a path to democracy in authoritarian Egypt. These officials might even believe what they're saying. But the very assertion of “not taking sides” is itself a tilt away from the all-out support traditionally given by Washington to this Egyptian strongman in recent decades.

The administration's move is a slide toward the unknown. Senior officials have no idea of exactly who these street protesters are, whether the protesters are simply a mob force incapable of organized political action and rule, or if more sinister groups hover in the shadows, waiting to grab power and turn Egypt into an anti-Western, anti-Israeli bastion. The White House has called upon its intelligence agents and diplomats to provide answers, but only best guesses are forthcoming. No one, no matter how well informed about Egypt, can divine what will happen to power within Egypt if the protesters compel concessions from the Mubarak regime or, on the other hand, if Mubarak hangs onto power by using brutal force.

So, some administration officials are thinking that for all the risks of losing a good ally in Mubarak, it might well be better to get “on the right side of history.” Some U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers have long harbored the view that corrupt, inept, and inefficient Arab friends simply cannot retain power forever. They believe President Carter should have trusted his initial instincts and pushed the Shah of Iran toward reforms. In this way, the shah might have become viable, or failing that, Washington could have allied with moderates who might have succeeded him.

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