from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Mubarak and Obama: Music and Lyrics

February 8, 2011

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There has been considerable criticism of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis. One telling complaint in my view is that they’ve been all over the lot: seeming to back the protesters one day, then saying Mubarak is stable (Clinton) and isn’t a dictator (Biden) the next, then back to saying the transition must begin right now, then suggesting that perhaps a slow Mubarak-and-Suleiman-led transition would be the best outcome. The decision to send Frank Wisner to Egypt was a disaster, and was an unforced error. Anyone familiar with Wisner knew he was on the Mubarak side and would sooner or later say so—and would never deliver a tough message to his old chum. The White House has blamed the State Department, and Secretary Clinton ought to review who told her this was a good idea and banish that person from her office. But the damage was done: our one official envoy to Mubarak thinks he should stay in office. By Tuesday February 8 the White House was sounding tough again, reading out a Biden-Suleiman call where the Vice President made several strong demands (stop the beatings, end the emergency law). This back-and-forth isn’t a “messaging” problem but a signal that the administration cannot seem to make up its mind.

The Egypt crisis is more complex than many uprisings against tyranny and many transitions to democracy in previous decades. In the cases of the South American military juntas with which I dealt in the Reagan Administration, the path was often clearer because it was a return to civilian rule and democracy. The generals—all ruling in uniform, with none of the trappings of false democracy that we see in Egypt—simply had to go back to the barracks. The future was supposed to look like the (democratic) past. There were strong parties in many countries, Christian Democrats and Socialists who could immediately jump into the political fray once more. By contrast Hosni Mubarak wears a suit and Egypt has all the trappings of republican democracy—a parliament, courts, elections, and so on, though they are all hollow—so the nature of the transition is more obscure. Is it from military to civilian rule? From Mubarak to not Mubarak? From having a ruling party to having real competition? More important, Egypt cannot return to any democratic past, nor can it model itself on neighbors who are democratic. The immense influence of Western Europe and the EU on the political development of the former Soviet republics and satellites is missing in the Arab cases. Like the Tunisians, the Egyptians will have to make it up as they go along.

There are precedents for “pacted transitions” in which those in power and those outside negotiate a deal. The best example may well be the “Club Naval” Agreement in Uruguay in 1984. And there are certainly examples of successful transitions from dictatorship to democracy outside of Latin America, such as in Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Defenders of the Mubarak/Suleiman government and its conduct this week suggest that all those examples provide a model for Egypt and that this sort of transition is their goal. The Egyptian regime says it is discussing the future openly with all parties, and one of Mr. Biden’s demands was “broadening participation in the national dialogue.” This assumes of course that the regime is not playing for time, not seeking to crush the protests without the massive violence of a Tienanmen-style crackdown, not aiming for cosmetic changes that leave the power structure unaffected.

I don’t believe it. The conduct of the Egyptian government suggests a different goal: Mubarakism without Mubarak. The police continue to abuse peaceful demonstrators, and would not do so without orders. Those who have been jailed tell chilling stories about their detention and the beatings they and other prisoners received. The thirty-year-old Emergency Law has not even been lifted, something that could be done quite literally with the stroke of a pen. The army itself is now complicit in keeping the Mubarak power structure in place, and has been since the day it withdrew from around Tahrir Square to permit armed regime-organized thugs to attack peaceful demonstrators there. In fact, the best explanation for the regime’s reactions since demonstrations broke out is that the “deep state”—the combination of police, military, corporate, and ruling party interests that have run things in Egypt for four decades—is hanging on and intends no real changes.

The first problem with the Obama Administration’s reaction has been noted above: inconstancy. Thinking it is calibrating its responses to events on the ground, it is instead leaving friend and foe alike unclear about its intentions. The larger problem is the lack of commitment and passion. The presidential statements have been those of Obama the academic, the cool analyst. Last Sunday he said "Here’s what we know: is that Egypt is not going to go back to what it was. The Egyptian people want freedom. They want free and fair elections. They want a representative government. They want a responsive government. And so, what we’ve said is: you have to start a transition now. Mubarak has already decided he’s not running for re-election again. His term is up this year. And what we’ve said is: let’s make sure that you get all the groups together in Egypt, let Egyptian people make a determination on what’s the process for an orderly transition, but one that is a meaningful transition.” Not exactly inspirational. And when asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood might take over he lapsed into down-home folksy talk: “there are a whole bunch of secular folks in Egypt.” Thousands of those “secular folks” are risking their lives in Tahrir Square every day, but the president has yet to give them any sense that he, and America, are moved, excited, and admiring about their fight for freedom.

Administration defenders point to a word here and a sentence there that show how hard the president and his staff are pressing the Egyptian regime. They can show you the words, the lyrics. Missing entirely is the music—the sense of passion, the message that we are inspired by the demonstrators and loathe stagnant dictatorships like the one that has ruled Egypt’s people for decades.

Compare what Natan Sharansky has said about Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, when asked if there were any particular moments that inspired the struggle against tyranny in the Soviet Union:

Of course! It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union. It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin’s "Great October Bolshevik Revolution" and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution--Reagan’s Revolution.

In the face of a freedom revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, the president has not used his voice; he has not inspired the demonstrators nor has he been an articulate defender of our own values. Will he miss this historic moment, as he missed the moment when Iran’s people rebelled in June 2009?

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