Reports indicate that it is now likely that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak will step down in a statement to come at 1:30 p.m. today. Assuming this is true, one wonders why the administration presented conflicting information earlier this week regarding its support for Mubarak. Officials from Robert Gibbs to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lessened pressure on Mubarak. The U.S. envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner went the farthest, stating, “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his chance to write his own legacy.” This was despite some earlier pressure from the Obama administration upon the Egyptian regime.
This situation could have been avoided. As I called for more than two weeks ago here on the Corner, President Obama could have made a clear statement of his administration’s intent to back a democratic transition in Egypt. The president could have mentioned how a democratic Egypt would still stand with the U.S. on the critical security issues of unfettered access to the Suez Canal and opposition to the terrorist group Hamas. The president could have followed the sentiments expressed in his own inaugural address, when he argued that autocrats like Mubarak were “on the wrong side of history.”
None of this happened. The administration also did not state that aid would be cut unless the Egyptian government respected its people’s right to organize. This also would have cleared up any confusion regarding the administration’s position.
Much of the muddle resulted from a reactionary and poorly coordinated response to the crisis. The situation is Egypt is complicated. But it should have been immediately clear following days of protests that Mubarak’s time as Egypt’s leader was coming to a close. Instead of taking a strong position early on and attempting to drive events and coverage, the administration let itself become hostage to the daily news cycle. The administration’s spokespersons reacted to events instead of establishing a clear position and defending it. This response became especially problematic when the momentum of the protests briefly halted after thugs backed by Mubarak attacked the protesters and the regime attempted to win the Egyptian people back. The seeming change in events on the ground shifted the administration’s public posture, as seen in statements by Wisner and Clinton, perhaps leading some of those camped in Tahrir Square to believe the administration was with them only as long as they appeared to be winning.
The delegation of the administration’s public position on Egypt to a range of authorities worsened the confusion. If leading journalists based in the U.S. charged with covering the administration on a daily basis had trouble determining the administration’s position, it is highly unlikely that the Egyptian people, unused to reading the tea leaves of Washington policymaking, could discern where the U.S. stood. The inability to force a common position among the agencies of the executive branch should lead to questions about the ability of the White House National Security Council’s to coordinate policy among agencies in a crisis — the very task for which the NSC was created.
Now we have to deal with the mess left by a bewildering policy on Egypt. A lack of clarity in the U.S. position toward Mubarak may create resentment among some of the forces that will replace Mubarak. Some may believe that the U.S. does not stand with them as various elements of the U.S. government continued to support Mubarak. This may include elements of both the Egyptian military and the secular opposition in Egypt.
The new dawn in Egypt will require active engagement by the administration to bolster pro-democratic secular forces, many of whom are likely skeptical of U.S. intentions and support, over more radical Islamist elements. It will be especially difficult to promote good feelings toward Washington as the situation now likely necessitates a reduction in the pace of the pro-democracy movement, as described by Max Boot. It may be best for the pro-democratic secular forces in Egypt if elections do not occur for some months, allowing time for moderate groups to organize in a more liberalized Egyptian political environment.
The administration has not displayed the necessary discipline and grasp of the situation on the ground thus far. Here’s hoping it can overcome its mistakes, as U.S. national security now depends on the administration working overtime to bolster freedom and American interests in Egypt.
— Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.