Obama’s still trying for Egyptian change

There seems to be a congealing narrative that the Obama administration has thrown in its lot with Omar Suleiman, abandoned its push for democratic change, and succumbed to short-sighted pragmatism.  It’s easy to see the attraction of this perspective.   Hopes and expectations that Friday would be the climactic day of Mubarak’s departure shattered on his ...

Massay.com via Flickr Creative Commons
Massay.com via Flickr Creative Commons

There seems to be a congealing narrative that the Obama administration has thrown in its lot with Omar Suleiman, abandoned its push for democratic change, and succumbed to short-sighted pragmatism.  It’s easy to see the attraction of this perspective.   Hopes and expectations that Friday would be the climactic day of Mubarak’s departure shattered on his obstinate refusal, leaving many people deflated and frustrated.  Comments by the State Department’s mail-carrier Frank Wisner that Mubarak should stay and more cautious language from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Munich are dots easily connected, especially by a Washington media corps primed for signs of Obama’s weakness or intra-administration splits.  Suleiman and Mubarak’s men are also pushing this narrative of a softening American position in order to deflect perceptions that they are under foreign pressure and to discourage Egyptian protestors.   Tahrir Square protestors have been primed from the start to express their dismay with Obama, since he could never have satisfied their hopes.

But this narrative, so politically convenient for so many different actors, captures only one part of the truth. It’s right that the administration was frustrated by Mubarak’s rejection of the blizzard of messages they sent along all channels on the need to begin an immediate and meaningful transition.  The President may not have said the magic words “Mubarak must go” — and a good thing, too, since it clearly would not have worked — but the administration’s message that he should in the days leading up to Friday’s “Day of Departure” was unmistakeable.  But at this point, the hard reality is that we may not get the cathartic moment of Mubarak’s plane departing to the cheers of millions of Egyptians celebrating a new era.  The struggle is now shifting to the much messier terrain of negotiations over the terms of Egypt’s transition, with public and private jockeying over matters ranging from the esoteric (proposed language for Constitutional reforms) to the symbolic (Mubarak’s role).

Crucially, as it adapts to this new game, the administration has not in the least backed down on its calls for a meaningful transition.  While all the media focused on Clinton’s supposed pro-Suleiman message in Munich, her overall message was very strong on reform.  President Obama and Robert Gibbs have repeatedly and consistently demanded in public that a meaningful transition begin immediately.  When Suleiman dismissed the call to repeal Egypt’s Emergency Law, Gibbs quickly called his statement “unacceptable.”  The question is now how the administration can best exercise its limited influence in order to ensure that the coming months see a real and meaningful transition to a more democratic, pluralistic, transparent and accountable Egyptian government.

Despite the rapid consensus that Suleiman has been designated as America’s man in this process, any acceptance of his role is likely by default rather than design.  The administration clearly does not want to allow Suleiman and Mubarak to revert to the status quo ante, or to consolidate a new nakedly military regime.  Nobody in the administration has any illusions about Suleiman’s likely intentions to revert to the old familiar games of the Egyptian national security state:  dividing and co-opting the opposition, selective repression, stoking fears of Islamists, playing for time while evoking a desire for normalcy, offering token reforms which can either be retracted down the road or emptied of meaning, and protecting the core perogoatives of the regime.   The Egyptian military seems to have a winning game plan, and it doesn’t include the fundamental reforms for which Egyptian protestors or the Obama administration have called.

So what can the administration do?   Suleiman and the forces of the Egyptian status quo seem to feel comfortably in control right now after surviving Friday’s mass demonstrations.  Ongoing protests or regime defections are the most likely forces to disrupt this “normality” strategy, but both are largely beyond the administration’s control at this point — except for continuing to exercise all possible leverage to prevent violent repression.   In addition, the administration needs to consider blitzing (the one football reference this Green Bay Packers fan will use today, I promise) to unsettle them.  In practice, that means forcing specific issues on which real progress is possible in order to lock in favorable terms for the coming negotiations.   It means finding ways to communicate that there is real muscle behind the words of “unacceptable,” before those words fade into easily ignored background noise.

Here’s a few issues which I would throw out there for the coming period:

Negotiations:  The administration’s call for serious negotiations is a good one, but also one easily abused.  It would be a mistake for the U.S. to be drawn into the position of negotiating with the Egyptian regime on behalf of the protestors, particularly since this would violate one of the administration’s key guiding principles that Egyptians must make their own choices.  But it can play a critical role in pushing Suleiman to the negotiation table and acting as the guarantor of any agreements reached.  It will have to publicly and privately hold the Egyptian regime to its commitments, demanding full compliance with their letter and spirit and calling it out on all backsliding.

Who’s at the Table:  The opposition parties invited into negotiations are poor representatives of the Egyptian people, easily divided or co-opted.   The Tahrir Square youth leaders are full of energy and brilliant ideas, but likely lack clear leadership or the experience necessary to stand up to Suleiman’s machinations — and are vulnerable to creeping repression, arrests, media blackouts and his efforts to portray them as unrepresentative and marginal youths.  The process clearly has to include the Muslim Brotherhood, despite all of the scaremongering here in the United States and encouraged in Egypt by the regime.  The recent enthusiasm for the “Wise Men” initiative is therefore well-placed.  While unelected and unrepresentative, the group includes a wide range of figures with real stature and independent social, economic or political capital who could help overcome the limitations of the parties and the protestors when engaging directly with Suleiman, Shafik, and the state.

   Specific Steps:    There’s a  vigorous debate among Egyptians and among outside experts about the best way to proceed to make this transition stick.  I don’t want to wade into those arguments here.  But I do think that it is important to move quickly on some major, highly symbolic but also functionally crucial issues.  I would focus on the lifting of the Emergency Law, the dissolution of Parliament, and the creation of a credible, non-biased commission to oversee the transition.  I would also focus on exacting a firm, public commitment from any leader managing the transition — including Suleiman —  that he will not stand for election in September.

Violence and Repression:  One of the real achievements of the administration’s diplomacy throughout the crisis has been its role in restraining the use of violence by the Egyptian military.  This hasn’t been perfect, of course, and far too many Egyptians have died. But it could have been far worse.  Tahrir could have become Tiananmen.  That it didn’t almost certainly owes a great deal to the constant, high-level communications from the U.S. to its Egyptian military counterparts.   In the coming period, however, violence and repression is likely to be more subtle and scattered — quiet disappearances in the middle of the night, not tanks massing in public areas.  If the regime hunts down protest leaders, as at least some seem to intend, then the transition process will be fatally flawed.  The administration will need to be constantly vigilant, and set the bar of what it will tolerate extremely low — zero tolerance.

  Regionalize Reform:   It’s widely recognized, but bears restating, that Egypt’s fate has implications for the entire region.   The rapid contagion effect from Tunisia to not only Egypt but almost everyone else shows how unified the Arab political space has become over the last decade thanks to al-Jazeera and now the internet.  The last two months are probably the first time in decades that Arab regimes have been genuinely uncertain about their ability to manage their societies and survive.  Their fear could easily lead them to retreat into a hard shell, pre-emptively ramping up repression and control, particularly if the Egyptian regime retrenches.  The administration should be reassuring its allies of continued support, but it should also be planning now for a region-wide initiative to push regimes collectively to embrace reform, if only to save their own skins.  Even if Egypt retrenches, nobody else wants to face such a challenge.  The focus should not be on elections for their own sake, but it should forcefully push back on attempts to limit changes to economic ones which ignore the fundamental issues of public freedoms, accountability and transparency.   The window will close rapidly on the opportunity to push for such reforms, so  planning needs to start now.

Overall, we should not over-react to the frustration over Mubarak’s hanging on to power and the seeming retrenchment of regime power.   Let’s not forget how much has already happened — Hosni and Gamal Mubarak agreeing not to run in the next election, in particular, meaning that the Kefaya movement has finally achieved its primary demand dating back nearly a decade. The administration, for its part, has continued to push hard publicly and privately for rapid, meaningful reforms.  The narrative that it has abandoned them is untrue, but could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it empowers Suleiman’s “normality” gambit and stiffens the regime’s resistance to real change.   There are many tough days ahead, and no guarantees that the administration’s strategy will work.   But it is still trying.

UPDATE, 1:05pm:  One other recommendation which I’ve been mulling over is that the administration appoint a Special Envoy to oversee the Egyptian transition.  I’m not talking about another mail-carrier, but rather someone who knows the Egyptian issues very well and would have sufficient stature to compel respect in Cairo and in the Washington bureaucracy.  This would ensure that somebody would be able to maintain laser-like focus on the negotiation process and on compliance with agreements, which senior officials won’t be able to maintain if the fever pitch recedes.  I’m not going to name anyone as good candidates, but I’ve got some thoughts!

 Twitter: @abuaardvark
Tag: Egypt

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