Impression prevails Obama's people caught off guard on Egypt


“WE HAVE been very consistent from the beginning with this situation,” US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said of the Egyptian crisis on February 6th. US demands, as expressed repeatedly by Mrs Clinton and president Barack Obama, have been that security forces and demonstrators refrain from violence and that an “orderly transition” begin, leading to free and fair elections. The administration insists it is up to the Egyptian people, not Washington, to decide the fate of their country.

Yet the impression has prevailed that the Obama administration was caught off guard and improvised policy as it sought to navigate the crisis. Mr Obama is said to have upbraided his intelligence chiefs for their failure to predict the events of the past two weeks.

When the protests started on January 25th, Mrs Clinton said Egypt was stable and president Hosni Mubarak was a loyal ally. One week later, Mubarak gave a defiant speech in which he said he would not step down, but had in any case never intended to stand for re-election next September. Mr Obama spoke to Mr Mubarak after that night, in what was reportedly a tense exchange. Mr Obama then made his own televised speech, in which he said an “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now”. Leaked reports that high-ranking US officials were saying Mr Mubarak would have to step down strengthened the belief that the administration was pushing him towards the exit.

Then the regime unleashed its thugs on protesters and journalists in Tahrir Square on February 2nd. Egypt appeared to be on the brink of civil war. “That was the turning point and that was a very scary moment for many Egyptians, including those who want to see Mubarak go,” says Kenton Keith, a retired US ambassador who served in several Middle East countries, including Egypt. “People I talked to were getting nervous about the potential for violence and things spinning out of control.” Mr Keith thinks it is possible the regime used the violence that day to put pressure on the US, as well as Egyptians. “Things like that don’t just happen. It wouldn’t be the first time,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in the security establishment said: ‘Don’t forget – we have some trump cards here.’” At the same time, a realisation set in that the “orderly transition” desired by US officials would take time. Mrs Clinton pointed out that under the present constitution, elections would have to take place 60 days after the president’s resignation.

Mr Obama had dispatched Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador, to Cairo, reportedly to tell Mubarak it was time to go. But instead, Mr Wisner reported back: “President Mubarak’s role remains utterly critical in the days ahead.” Mr Mubarak had to lead the transition, Mr Wisner said.

Mrs Clinton said Mr Wisner did not speak for the administration. But his defence of Mr Mubarak may reflect competing strands of advice offered to Mr Obama. “Some are lobbying for the regime. Some fear the Muslim Brothers might take power, and others care mainly about the people at large,” says Khairi Abaza, an Egyptian who is senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies in Washington. A semblance of a reform process was set in motion on February 6th, led by vice-president Omar Suleiman with some of the Egyptian opposition. Mr Suleiman, who was Mr Mubarak’s intelligence chief for the past 18 years, has not made it easy for the US to support him. He opposes lifting the state of emergency, in place since 1981, which the regime has used to deny civil liberties in Egypt. He says Mr Mubarak should stay in office until September, and Egyptians are “not ready for democracy”.

Robert Gibbs, Mr Obama’s spokesman, condemned Suleiman’s remark, saying that “real democracy has to start now”.

“The Obama administration realises that Egypt has changed for good, that they cannot support the regime as before,” says Mr Abaza. “They are looking for the best way to manage it. They are still flailing about. If in a few days the reform process leads to nothing, they may toughen their stance. If it seems to be working, they’ll support it.”

In any case, says Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center who has advised several US secretaries of state on Middle East issues, “the old devil’s bargain in which Washington relied on Cairo for support in its war and peacemaking policies, in exchange for giving Egypt a pass on how it is governed, is probably dead.” For the past two weeks, Mr Miller says, “we have walked a very fine line between calling for Mubarak’s departure and essentially endorsing him. The notion of transition has been the middle balance. We simply surrendered to reality. He is not departing Egypt and the momentum, at least for today, has shifted away from the forces who would be able to dislodge him.”