by Gary Farber
There are many expert reporters on Egypt, obviously, and tons of scholars. But let's start with the excellent generalist on international policy that everyone has, I hope, been reading for many years -- and if you haven't you should start last year or whenever -- Laura Rozen. Some good news and bad news:
Earlier today, I was on a panel discussing coverage of the Egypt unrest, and someone mentioned that no one had seen it coming.
But that is not the case. Several foreign policy scholars and former officials have been urging the U.S. administration for months to prepare for the end of the Hosni Mubarak era and the instability that would accompany it.
Now that the administration has found itself scrambling the past few days to, first, try to avert a bloodbath in Egypt and more broadly, figure out what to do amid a hugely complicated power transition there with much at stake for the U.S., it's worth noting the people who have been pleading for policy attention on this issue long in advance. Chief among them, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Michele Dunne, a former NSC and State Department Policy Planning official, and the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan, who co-chair a bipartisan working group on Egypt.
I (and others) wrote about their efforts to get the U.S. policy community to pay attention. See "W.H. pressed on Egypt democracy," from September:
A bipartisan group of senators and foreign policy analysts is pushing the Obama administration to prepare for the looming end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt by putting a new emphasis on Egyptian political reform and human rights.
The group’s immediate goal is to pressure Mubarak to allow international monitors to observe Egypt’s parliamentary elections in November, but the overall aim is much broader.
“The bottom line is that we are moving into a period of guaranteed instability in Egypt,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar with the Brookings Institution who co-founded the Egypt Working Group with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So the idea [that] we can keep puttering on as if nothing is going to change is a mistake. ... What we need now is to move to deliverables.” [...]
"We have a feeling that Mubarak has managed to bluff one more [American] administration, as he has done for 28 years,” Egyptian- American sociologist and civil society activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim told POLITICO. “He’s very skillful at portraying himself as the stalwart [Arab partner in the Middle East peace process], and arguing the focus should not be on elections and democracy while he has to attend to other important files — Gaza, the Palestinians, Iran, Syria; on all these [he portrays himself as] the best ally, the lever.” [...]
U.S. pressure has led Egypt to release hundreds of Egyptian civil society activists detained under emergency law in the past several months, Dunne said. But Kagan and company say the U.S. should be doing much more.
This is all good. Bad:
Mubarak didn't permit international elections observers to monitor Egypt's November parliamentary polls, and the Senate resolution on Egypt co-sponsored by former Sen. Feingold never made it out of the Foreign Relations Committee, Josh Gerstein reported Saturday. [...]
To their credit, the National Security Council's top Middle East hands Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro met with Dunne and Kagan in November to discuss the issue (at a stuck moment of the peace process which has remained stuck), and other democracy and human rights specialists in the administration, including the NSC's Samantha Power and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East democracy issues Tamara Wittes, have frequently met with them.
Just got late word that Dunne, Kagan and others from their group including former Bush NSC Middle East hand Elliott Abrams, as well as George Washington University Middle East expert Marc Lynch, and the National Security Network's Joel Rubin, formerly a U.S. Egypt desk officer, have been invited to the White House Monday.
“We do think-tank sessions on an almost weekly basis," a senior administration official told POLITICO's Playbook. "The goal is to bring in some of the top opinion leaders and thinkers on a given subject and have a candid conversion. We’ve done it with China, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. Today’s topic is Egypt.”
The good here is, of course, Marc Lynch, one of the go-to guys on the Middle East, the guy you were reading for so many years as Abu Aardvark, of course. Aside from being a big fan of Buffy, Marc is expert and a truly fine fellow. that you must read on the Middle East unless you yourself read Arabic, and most of the Arab papers, watch most Arabic tv, etc., and since I don't, I read Marc, among many others, and he observes that Obama's handling Egypt pretty well:
After President Obama spoke last night about the situation in Egypt, my Twitter feed and inbox filled up with angry denunciations, with lots of people complaining bitterly that he had endorsed Mubarak's grim struggle to hold on to power, missed an historic opportunity, and risked sparking a wave of anti-Americanism. Once I actually read the transcript of his remarks, though, I felt much better. I think the instant analysis badly misread his comments and the thrust of the administration's policy. His speech was actually pretty good, as is the rapidly evolving American policy. The administration, it seems to me, is trying hard to protect the protestors from an escalation of violent repression, giving Mubarak just enough rope to hang himself, while carefully preparing to ensure that a transition will go in the direction of a more democratic successor.
It's crucial to understand that the United States is not the key driver of the Egyptian protest movement. They do not need or want American leadership -- and they most certainly are not interested in "vindicating" Bush's freedom agenda or the Iraq war, an idea which almost all would find somewhere between laughable, bewildering, and deeply offensive. Suspicion of American intentions runs deep, as does folk wisdom about decades of U.S. collaboration with Mubarak. They are not really parsing Hilary Clinton's adjectives. Their protest has a dynamic and energy of its own, and while they certainly want Obama to take their side forcefully and unequivocally they don't need it.
What they do need, if they think about it, is for Obama to help broker an endgame from the top down --- to impose restraints on the Egyptian military's use of violence to repress protests, to force it to get the internet and mobile phones back online, to convince the military and others within the regime's inner circle to ease Mubarak out of power, and to try to ensure that whatever replaces Mubarak commits to a rapid and smooth transition to civilian, democratic rule. And that's what the administration is doing. The administration's public statements and private actions have to be understood as not only offering moral and rhetorical support to the protestors, or as throwing bones to the Washington echo chamber, but as working pragmatically to deliver a positive ending to a still extremely tense and fluid situation.
I completely understand why activists and those who desperately want the protestors to succeed would be frustrated --- anything short of Obama gripping the podium and shouting "Down With Mubarak!" probably would have disappointed them. But that wasn't going to happen, and shouldn't have. If Obama had abandoned a major ally of the United States such as Hosni Mubarak without even making a phone call, it would have been irresponsible and would have sent a very dangerous message to every other U.S. ally. That doesn't mean, as some would have it, that Obama has to stick with Mubarak over the long term -- or even the weekend -- but he simply had to make a show of trying to give a long-term ally one last chance to change.
The key to the administration's emerging strategy is the public and private signal that this is Mubarak's last chance, that the administration does not expect him to seize it, and that the U.S. has clear expectations of those who might succeed him. The key line in his remarks here is this:
"When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."
I recommend Reading The Rest, as you should always do with Prof Lynch (and my bias that we've been bloggin' buds since he started blogging is irrelevant; I've read lots of arseh*les for decades, and been friends with some such bloggers, too). The ugly, of course, is Elliot Abrams who was one of the most despicable actors in the Reagan administration's support of death squads and torture in El Salvador:
In early 1982, when reports of the El Mozote massacre of civilians by the military in El Salvador began appearing in U.S. media, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote "were not credible," and that "it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas." The massacre had come at a time when the Reagan administration was attempting to bolster the human rights image of the Salvadoran military. Abrams implied that reports of a massacre were simply FMLN propaganda and denounced U.S. investigative reports of the massacre as misleading. In March 1993, the Salvadoran Truth Commission reported that 5,000 civilians were “deliberately and systematically” executed in El Mozote in December 1981 by forces affiliated with the Salvadoran state.
Not to mention elsewhere in Latin America.
[...] Just last week, Cheney showed up at a Republican senatorial luncheon to lobby lawmakers for a CIA exemption to an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The exemption would cover the CIA's covert "black sites" in several Eastern European democracies and other countries where key al Qaeda captives are being kept.
Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt declined to comment on the vice president's interventions or to elaborate on his positions. "The vice president's views are certainly reflected in the administration's policy," he said.
Increasingly, however, Cheney's positions are being opposed by other administration officials, including Cabinet members, political appointees and Republican lawmakers who once stood firmly behind the administration on all matters concerning terrorism.
Personnel changes in President Bush's second term have added to the isolation of Cheney, who previously had been able to prevail in part because other key parties to the debate -- including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and White House counsel Harriet Miers -- continued to sit on the fence.
But in a reflection of how many within the administration now favor changing the rules, Elliot Abrams, traditionally one of the most hawkish voices in internal debates, is among the most persistent advocates of changing detainee policy in his role as the deputy national security adviser for democracy, according to officials familiar with his role.
But, then, anyone looks sane compared to Dick Cheney. And the good news is that just because you listen to someone, it doesn't mean you take their advice.
Abrams, you'll also recall,
Pleaded guilty October 7, 1991, to two misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress about secret government efforts to support the Nicaraguan contra rebels during a ban on such aid. U.S. District Chief Judge Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr., sentenced Abrams November 15, 1991, to two years probation and 100 hours community service. Abrams was pardoned December 24, 1992.
Bush Pardons 6 in Iran Affair, Aborting a Weinberger Trial; Prosecutor Assails 'Cover-Up'
But I have a lot of faith in Marc's judgment, so I'm cautiously hopeful Obama will listen to Marc, and who knows, maybe even Abrams has changed spots.
Though I doubt it:
On February 2, 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Abrams deputy national security adviser for Global Democracy Strategy. In his new position, Abrams became responsible for overseeing the National Security Council’s directorate of Democracy, Human Rights, and International Organization Affairs and its directorate of Near East and North African Affairs.
On the other hand, it turned out that Abrams was too busy to bother advise Obama!
The overthrow of the Shah came as a surprise to almost all observers. The first militant anti-Shah demonstrations of a few hundred started in October 1977, after the death of Khomeini's son Mostafa. A year later strikes were paralyzing the country, and in early December a "total of 6 to 9 million" — more than 10% of the country — marched against the Shah throughout Iran.
On 16 January 1979, he made a contract with Farboud and left Iran at the behest of Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar (a long time opposition leader himself), who sought to calm the situation. Spontaneous attacks by members of the public on statues of the Pahlavis followed, and "within hours, almost every sign of the Pahlavi dynasty" was destroyed. Bakhtiar dissolved SAVAK, freed all political prisoners, and allowed the Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran after years in exile. He asked Khomeini to create a Vatican-like state in Qom, promised free elections and called upon the opposition to help preserve the constitution, proposing a 'national unity' government including Khomeini's followers. Khomeini fiercely rejected Dr. Bakhtiar's demands and appointed his own interim government, with Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister, demanding "since I have appointed him he must be obeyed."
This has still yet to work out very well. I make no predictions. But presumably you've heard:
Just hours after President Hosni Mubarak declared Tuesday night that he would step down in September as modern Egypt’s longest-serving leader, President Obama strongly suggested that Mr. Mubarak’s concession was not enough, declaring that an “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”
While the meaning of the last phrase was deliberately vague, it appeared to be a signal that Mr. Mubarak might not be able to delay the shift to a new leadership.
In a 30-minute phone call to Mr. Mubarak just before his public remarks, Mr. Obama was more forceful in insisting on a rapid transition, according to officials familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Mubarak’s 10-minute speech announcing he would step down came after his support from the powerful Egyptian military began to crumble and after American officials urged him not to run again for president.
But Mr. Mubarak’s offer fell short of the protestors’ demands for him to step down immediately and even face trial, and it could well inflame passions in an uprising that has rivaled some of the most epic moments in Egypt’s contemporary history. The protests have captivated a broader Arab world that has already seen a leader fall in Tunisia this month and growing protests against other American-backed governments.
Mr. Mubarak, 82, said he would remain in office until a presidential election in September and, in emotional terms, declared that he would never leave Egypt.
And you might have predictions or thoughts. What do you think?