Marc Lynch

Washington eyes a fateful day in Egypt

Like approximately 99 percent of the Arab world, and the U.S. government, I’ve been glued to Al Jazeera all morning watching the astonishing images of mass demonstrations and brutal security force repression across Egypt. I’m not going to even try to summarize the course of events thus far — for now I just wanted to ...

Flickr Creative Commons, January 27, 2011
Flickr Creative Commons, January 27, 2011

Like approximately 99 percent of the Arab world, and the U.S. government, I’ve been glued to Al Jazeera all morning watching the astonishing images of mass demonstrations and brutal security force repression across Egypt. I’m not going to even try to summarize the course of events thus far — for now I just wanted to quickly note that the Obama administration needs to get out in front of this very, very soon. Its messaging has been good thus far, consistently and firmly been speaking out against Egyptian repression and in support of political freedoms. The message has been muddied by a few unfortunate exceptions such as Clinton’s early comment about Egyptian stability, presumably before she had been fully briefed, and Biden’s bizarre praise for Mubarak last night. Despite those false notes, it’s been a strong message…. but one which is rapidly being overtaken by events.

The administration has to get out in the next few hours with a strong public statement by a senior official, such as Secretary of State Clinton, which clearly lays out that using violence against citizens is a U.S. red line and which goes beyond "urging" or "hoping" that the Egyptian government responds. It’s really important that the United States be clearly and unambiguously on the right side of these events, and not wait and see too long for it to matter. The public message should be paired with blunt private messages to the Egyptian government that there’s no going back to business as usual, regardless of whether Mubarak rides out this storm in the short run.

This is about more than Egypt — it touches the United States’ entire position in the region. After weak early coverage, Al Jazeera has more than risen to the occasion today with graphic, riveting coverage of the fateful day. Al Jazeera and a few other media outlets have compensated for the Egyptian government’s remarkable shutdown of virtually the entire internet and mobile phone networks, and have thwarted the regime’s effort to impose an information blackout allowing its brutal methods to go unwitnessed. Al Jazeera has reclaimed ownership of a narrative which has long been the core of its DNA.

It will be a long time before anyone in the region forgets some of the scenes which aired today. And it will be a long time before anyone forgets what position the United States took on today’s events — whether it lived up to its rhetoric on Arab democracy, or whether it silently accedes to brutal repression by a friendly dictator. The administration needs to be careful, more so than analysts like me, but there’s no hiding from this now.

Washington’s hesitation isn’t hard to understand: for all the energy and passion on the street, Mubarak’s regime very well could survive and would remember well any wavering of U.S. support. Other regimes in the region might be quite concerned if the U.S. failed to back its long time ally. And popular movements which might replace Mubarak would not likely be as supportive on foreign policy, putting at risk key U.S. policies such as the blockade of Gaza. It’s easy for me, as an analyst, to push the United States to be forceful in support of the Egyptian protestors but I can understand why the administration appears cautious. That said, the arguments for caution are crumbling rapidly.

Mubarak’s regime has been wounded at its core, and even if he survives in the short run the regime will have to make major internal changes to regain any semblance of normality. An Egyptian regime which spends the next years in a state of military lockdown will hardly be a useful ally. It’s not like there’s an active peace process to compromise. The Islamist scarecrow shouldn’t work, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s limited role in events (despite the efforts of the Egyptian regime to claim otherwise).

More broadly the costs to the Obama administration with Arab public opinion of being on the wrong side of this issue will be enormous. This isn’t about the "magical democracy words" of the past few years — it’s about a moment of flux when real change is possible, whether or not the United States wants it. Accepting Mubarak’s fierce gambit now would put an end to any claim the United States has of promoting democracy and reform for a generation, and alienating the rising youth generation on which the administration has placed so much emphasis. It would also make Cairo the graveyard of Obama’s Cairo speech and efforts to rebuild relations with the Muslims of the world. The United States will be better positioned to push such changes in the right direction if it maintains a strong and principled position today — regardless of whether Mubarak or someone else ends up in control. The cautious strategy right now is the same as the principled one, whether Mubarak falls or if he survives.

The Obama administration has handled developments in the Arab world skillfully over the last month. It has done a good job of siding with the universal demands for freedom and political rights, without taking overt sides. It has wisely avoided trying to stamp the events as "made in America." Now conditions are changing rapidly, and now is the time for the administration to move to a new level. I’m hoping that we’ll soon hear some strong words from administration officials about Egypt.

UPDATE, 11:40am:   Secretary Clinton is now scheduled to give a statement on Egypt in about 10 minutes.   Good.  I know that a lot of Arabs are disappointed with Obama’s perceived silence on Egypt over the last few days (and furious over Biden’s comment) but there’s a long way to go.    The Obama administration is going to have to play a key role in talking Mubarak down if it comes to that, and the right intervention there would be at least as important, probably more important, than public statements.  There is a longer game here than posturing for the cameras — getting this right is the point. 

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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