The Middle East is on fire. The Tunisian dictatorship fell to revolution days ago, and that has rippled throughout the Middle East, with the most immediate concern being the ripples in Egypt. There, Honsi Mubarak's regime is facing riots of sufficient seriousness that his family has fled the nation.
Egypt has been ruled as a dictatorship by Mubarak since the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. And like all nations ruled by a dictatorship, Egypt has suffered. According to the CIA World Factbook, per capita GDP is just over $6,000, 20% of the nation lives below the poverty line, inflation is in double digits, and corruption pervades the nation. This from the Washington Post:
[F]or many [of the people rioting], it came down to this: a pervasive sense that the world has passed Egypt by, that money and power have become hopelessly entrenched in the hands of the few and that if the country is ever going to change, it has to do it now.
"There's a suffocating atmosphere in Egypt, and I'm tired of it," said Dandarwi, a lawyer dressed impeccably in a dark blue pinstriped suit, who quietly sipped coffee Thursday afternoon as he waited for the next protest to begin. "The elections are fraudulent. The people in power monopolize all the resources. There are no jobs. There's no health care. And I can't afford good schools for my children."
Like in Tunisia, the riots in Egypt are a grass roots phenomena and are motivated by bread and butter issues - jobs, inflation, corruption, and democracy. - not religion. The rioters are leaderless, though the April 6 Youth Movement, a facebook organization, appears to have been an important element in initiating the riots, as may have been coverage of the Tunisian riots by Al Jazeera.
The Bush Administration pushed for democratic reforms in Egypt, with the most famous call being made by Sec. of State Rice in her 2005 speech in Cairo. Bush significantly expanded programs to promote democracy in Egypt. But Obama, in his 2009 Cairo speech, completely backed off the effort to promote democracy in the Middle East, stating that he "would not presume to know what is best" for each nation. Further, while Obama continued financial support for the Mubarak regime, he "dramatically cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt."
Between the dictatorial bent of Mubarak and Obama's determination not to promote democratic reforms, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the most organized and largest opposition group in Egypt. The Brotherhood is the progenitor of virtually all radical Islamic terrorist groups, including al Qaeda. And the Brotherhood now sees a golden opportunity to co-op these riots and attempt to ride them to power. They will officially join the riots tomorrow, according to the NYT. If the Brotherhood succeeds, it will create a second Iran, Egyptians would have traded a dictatorship for an even more repressive theocracy, and the Western world will have to face a second enemy dedicated to its overthrow.
This nascent revolution in Egypt has caught Obama completely flat-footed. On Tuesday, with the riots on-going, Sec. of State Clinton stated that "Egypt's government is stable." By Thursday, it was clear that Clinton was clueless and that has left Obama struggling to find a policy:
Obama and his aides are performing a delicate balancing act as political upheaval rocks the Middle East, from Egypt to Tunisia to Lebanon to Yemen, catching his administration off-guard and showing the limits of U.S. influence.
While making a point of describing Mubarak as "very helpful on a range of tough issues," Obama sent him a blunt message to heed the demands of anti-government protesters for broader democratic rights after decades of authoritarian rule. . . .
The State Department expressed concern over reports that access to Internet and social networking websites was being blocked in Egypt.
"We are concerned that communication services, including the Internet, social media and even this #tweet, are being blocked in #Egypt," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted late on Thursday.
Facebook and Twitter have been key means of communication for protesters in Egypt. Twitter said on Wednesday the government had been blocking its service for the second consecutive day and had "greatly diminished traffic."
Obama urged the government and protesters to show restraint, saying violence was not the answer. "It is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances," he said, citing freedom of expression and access to social networking websites.
. . . the Obama administration is now pursuing a "dual-track" approach, with U.S. diplomats reaching out to government officials and democracy activists to encourage peaceful dialogue for reform, a senior U.S. official said. . . .
Most U.S.-based analysts believe Mubarak is likely to weather the storm, if for no other reason than his government and military seem prepared to use whatever force is needed.
But if Mubarak does lose his 30-year grip on power, the greatest U.S. fear would be the rise of a government with strong Islamist ties and the risk of Egypt aligning itself with Iran, a bitter foe of the United States and its ally Israel.
This is widely seen as something the powerful Egyptian military would never permit. Washington has poured billions of dollars of military and other aid into Egypt since it became the first of only two Arab states to make peace with Israel.
Unfortunately for Obama, the protesters are in no mood for half measures. They want real change, not hope and change. This from Reuters today:
Web activists called for mass protests across Egypt on Friday to end President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule after protesters clashed with security forces late into the night in the eastern city of Suez. . . .
All that it will take to turn the riots into a revolution is for some in the military to decide to switch sides as a critical moment. But as a leaderless revolution, it would create a vacuum that the Brotherhood would be quick to exploit unless something is done to head off such an outcome.
Unfortunately, Obama seems confused and out of his depth. His message of support for Mubarak and a message to the rioters that "violence isn't the answer" must seem craven and unrealistic advice indeed to people who have suffered under an iron-fisted dictatorship for decades. If the riots fail displace Mubarak, it won't be because of Obama's intercession on behalf of non-violence.
This is a critical challenge for the Obama administration. The moral highground here is clearly with the rioters. If Obama continues to side with Mubarak while mouthing meaningless suggestions that Mubarak institute democratic changes, whatever good will we have in Egypt may be squandered. That said, if he outright abandons Mubarak, he would be repeating the fatal mistakes of Jimmy Carter vis-a-vis Iran. Carter refused to back the Shah at a critical point in the 1979 revolution, thus opening up the country for takeover by Ayatollah Khomeini and the imposition of his repressive theocracy. Obama must also consider that Mubarak, given his age, ill health and tenuous hold on power, will not long retain power in Egypt in any event.
What Obama could do is act decisively. Obama should very publicly demand that Mubarak take specific steps to institute real democracy - freedom of speech, fair elections, a war on corruption - over a specific time frame or that he step down and turn over the government to a caretaker who will see to the reforms. At the same time, Obama should be using our contacts with Egypt's military to assist them in stepping in to take control of the country and institute a caretaker government should it become necessary. At all costs, Obama should be focused on buying the time and space to allow a secular opposition movement to coalesce in Egypt that can act as a counter-weight to the Brotherhood.
So now its 3:01 A.M. What will Obama do?
- Egypt's El Baradei Not An Option
- Egypt Update I