The new Egyptian cabinet was sworn in today amidst a seventh day of protests across the country. For the White House, the continual tweaking of their response to the crisis, and declining to call for Mubarak to step‐down, has left many in Egypt and the region wondering if the United States does in fact want to see the arrival of democracy to Cairo, or if it is simply content with allowing the status‐quo to remain, with minor reforms. Or perhaps they are just waiting for the chips to fall where they may.
This illustrates the conundrum facing the Obama administration. Over at The Skeptics, I examine this a bit further:
The Obama administration is stuck with a policy not entirely of its own making – decades of U.S. taxpayer support for the Mubarak regime – but it also seems trapped by the dominant worldview in Washington that is preoccupied with finding a solution to every problem in the world. This global view flows from deeply flawed assumptions about the likelihood of a worst‐case scenario transpiring in every case, and then exaggerating the impact of that worst‐case on U.S. security. In many instances, the impact is presumed to be nearly catastrophic. In actuality, they almost never are.
Might Egypt be an exception? It is an important country in its own right, traditionally a center of the Arab world. Its population of 80 million people is larger than that of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon combined. Egypt is the second leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind only Israel, and it straddles one of the most important choke points in the world, the Suez Canal. Given its size, influence and location, there is the possibility that this spreads elsewhere. Protests have also broken out in Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan. The Saudis and Jordanians are nervous.
So how should the U.S. respond? In the short‐term, the U.S. government needs to strike a balance, and not be seen as pushing too hard for Mubarak’s ouster; but Washington should not anoint a would‐be successor, either. The message should be: this is for the Egyptian people to decide.
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Oppressed people rarely get opportunities to express their anguish and disillusionment. Today in Egypt for the seventh straight day, thousands of ordinary citizens are pouring out onto the streets, demanding the expulsion of President Hosni Mubarak, calling for an end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention, and claiming the legitimate right to run their own country. It is well past time for U.S. policymakers to stand with the Egyptian people and rethink Mubarak’s purported role as an “anchor of stability” in the Middle East.
Many in Washington fear that the path Egypt takes after Mubarak might not lead to a freer and more prosperous future and that an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Ikhwan, will assume power. This concern, however legitimate, is largely beside the point.
First, the Ikhwan is popular for very legitimate reasons. Like Hezbollah, Ikhwan’s social‐welfare programs provide Egyptians cheap education and health care. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has even formed a loose union with the movement, which over the years has become relatively more moderate.
Second, even if Egypt’s revolution does not bring about the political or economic freedom that Washington deems fit, it is not for the United States to decide whether Egyptians choose wisely the interests and concerns that lie within their limited grasp. Events have certainly moved quickly, and fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, but Americans should not be reluctant to embrace a political emancipation movement for fear that it might be worse than whatever it replaces. After all, history shows that forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel, often in spite of the United States. Even if the Brethren does take control, it’s emergence would be a natural consequence of the lifting of Mubarak’s repressive police state. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted repeatedly that Egypt’s future will be decided by the Egyptian people, not by Washington, even though the notion that U.S. officials can be neutral simply by not taking sides is demonstrably false, as protesters are being arrested by a U.S.-backed security apparatus and sprayed with tear gas manufactured in the United States.
Third, it is not clear at all that Mubarak is a reliable American client. Yes, he has kept peace with Israel, but the veneer of control under this Caesarist despot has faltered in the past several days. His curfew, rather than discourage Egyptians from rising up, has given them the opportunity to stand on the threshold of a political renaissance. In fact, reports on the ground suggest that lives may have changed completely. For instance, what was depicted over the weekend as a massive prison break was apparently Mubarak releasing criminals from jails in order to unleash terror in the streets and punish Egyptians for recent riots. Is Mubarak really the political figure that America should be supporting? Does this question really need to be asked?
The Obama administration can extend diplomatic support to a political emancipation movement in Egypt, thereby visibly abandoning its long‐time dictatorial client and pushing other U.S.-backed autocrats to end censorship, political repression, and address their people’s demands for economic and political reforms. This change, however belated, can help salvage a decent relationship with a successor government and with the population of the country– similar to moves President Ronal Reagan made during the 1980s toward both South Korea and the Philippines. Although such a stance would likely do little to limit recruitment levels of militant outfits in North Africa, it does have the potential to substantially enhance America’s image in the Muslim world.
Although Mubarak has promised reforms, economic growth cannot act as a substitute for political liberty. Mubarak oversees a corrupt and exploitative political system that relies on patronage and cronyism. Economic opportunity and political expression have stagnated over the last fifty years (not just the last 30). Mubarak is now grasping at straws, pledging to institute economic reforms and policies that will just keep him in office longer. Despotic leaders like Mubarak love to adopt pseudo‐economic reforms to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot endure. Sooner, rather than later, Washington and Cairo must acknowledge and embrace the Egyptian people’s instinctive desire for freedom.
C/P on The Huffington Post.
RICE: …I'm also, frankly, just very glad [Saddam Hussein is] out of power. Now, to be frank, we tried to take him out of power without going to war. We tried to take him out of power by -- we got a report from an Arab state that shall remain nameless that he would take a billion dollars to lead -- to leave. We said, deal. Right? (Laughter.) We tried to (find ?) him --
COURIC: Has that -- has that been made public before?
RICE: Yeah, I -- it may be in President Bush's book. I'm not sure. I don't remember. But we did. We said, if he'll go, everybody's happy.
A colleague intrepidly Googled this, and turned up this 2007 article in the Washington Post. The article reports that for a billion dollars and if allowed to “keep information on weapons of mass destruction,” Saddam Hussein told Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak that he would have been willing to go into exile. President Bush’s own book, per Secretary Rice’s mention, covers the matter in this way:
…Our last ditch hope was that Saddam would agree to go into exile. At one point, an offer from a Middle Eastern government to send Saddam to Belarus with $1 to $2 billion looked like it might gain traction. Instead, in one of his last acts, Saddam ordered the tongue of a dissident slashed out and left the man to bleed to death. The dictator of Iraq had made his decision. He chose war.
Lots of people like to make fun of President Bush’s prose style, but even for him (or his ghostwriter) this is pretty peculiar. First of all, it isn’t clear why “person who cuts off dissidents’ tongues and leaves them to bleed to death” is mutually exclusive with “person willing to take a billion or two dollars and go into exile.” Saying Saddam cut a dissident’s tongue out doesn’t necessarily bear on his willingness to take a payout and go into exile.
Second, it’s almost certain that this was pursued and didn’t go anywhere, but if there was anything approaching a realistic opportunity to make this happen, we really missed out on the bargain of the century here. You’re looking at something like 500%-1000% returns, not counting several thousand American and a-hundred-or-so-thousand Iraqi lives saved.