The United States’ public position on Egypt is “flexible.” That in and of itself is not surprising, given the ambiguities surrounding the Cairo uprising. Mubarak’s Egypt originally offered the United States a continuance of Anwar Sadat’s Cold War anti-Soviet alliance, and later provided a relatively stable strategic partner in the increasingly terror-ridden Middle East. Mubarak’s own escalating authoritarian tendencies were mostly ignored by successive administrations — at best, because he appeared less murderous than the usual Middle East authoritarians and postured as an opponent of the radical Islamists who would otherwise ostensibly rise to power, and, at worse, because realists worried only about how Egypt figured into U.S. strategic objectives, without much concern for the human rights of its citizenry. In any case, a cumulative $50 billion–plus in aid was felt to have given the United States some influence in Egyptian governance, should Mubarak have deteriorated into something akin to Saddam Hussein.
When the protests in Egypt followed the Tunisian unrest, it was hard to discern the breadth of support of the dissidents or exactly what their anti-Mubarak demands boded — anarchy, eventual secular constitutional government, Islamist democracy in the fashion of Turkey, the emergence of another strongman, or a pathway to theocracy in the manner of Iran. But it was easy to see that a return of Egypt to its hostile, anti-Western posture of 1952–1973 would be a strategic disaster to the United States and its allies.
Moreover, the U.S. has always been aware of the disturbing contradiction that Arab authoritarians such as Mubarak were in some sense more liberal than the constituents whose rights they so shamefully abused — at least in matters of anti-Westernism, anti-Semitism, and adherence to sharia law. Plebiscites without true constitutional government and an independent judiciary most likely would lead to a Hamas-like one-vote, one-time climate of terror, not a society like Switzerland’s. Moreover, Westernized Arab elites who talked eloquently about human rights often did so from abroad, failed to represent a majority of their countrymen, or located their idealism in the easy landscape of anti-Americanism.
In other words, all that history and ambiguity might have prompted American officials to maintain a solidarity and uniformity in careful and guarded public commentary, and to consistently stress constitutional principles and legal processes — offering support for steady but careful transition to consensual government, and skepticism of the Muslim Brotherhood — rather than to give wildly erratic assessments of the main Egyptian players. But that was not to be.
If we were to collate all the pronouncements of Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, and President Obama, the administration believes that Mubarak is a dictator and not a dictator, a strategic ally and an embarrassing liability — and that he must leave immediately, soon, perhaps as soon as possible, but he should also transition Egypt into a constitutional state right now, this summer, next fall, but then should leave if he is somehow not already gone.
We can glean from all this that there is no official policy spokesperson. We can also conclude that the administration’s private conversations with Egyptian officials will be explained to the press in a way that makes Obama, Biden, and Clinton seem decisive, wise, and formidable — and increasingly unreliable to their Egyptian counterparts. And we will be told that the Obama administration — which on coming into office jettisoned the entire Bush approach to human rights in the Middle East (“reset”) as hopelessly neoconservative — was all along a strong promoter of freedom and consensual government and is in some way to be credited for the protests (but only if they do not descend into permanent chaos). What is going on here?