Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s apparent desire to hang on to power until September is forcing President Barack Obama into a difficult position.
Before the cameras Tuesday evening, Obama said change must happen immediately, but that Mubarak’s fate is in the hands of the Egyptian people demanding he resign now. The statement, coupled with Mubarak’s announcement he would not seek re-election, bought the White House some space – but not much.
From the streets of Cairo to the halls of Congress, the pressure is quickly building on Obama to act. Here are some of the issues experts say the White House must grapple with in the coming days:
Should Obama publicly shove Mubarak toward the door?
There was little new in the president’s brief statement Tuesday night, despite the half-hour conversation he had with Mubarak, shortly after Mubarak announced he would relinquish power after elections in September.
“An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now,” Obama said.
Sources said Obama privately urged Mubarak to step down now, but in his public remarks the president didn’t clearly indicate whether he thought Mubarak should stay until September, or play a role in the transition of power.
“The only new element was the word ‘now’ and that was finessed,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “This leaves the U.S. to some degree still at odds with and out of step with what the political opposition … is demanding on the street.”
Many longtime advocates for Egyptian political reform said the U.S. must clearly state that Mubarak cannot credibly manage the transition or the electoral process. Meanwhile, protesters in Egypt say they won’t leave the streets until Mubarek is gone.
“The idea that Mubarak is now going to oversee reform is pretty ridiculous,” said Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First. “That may have been acceptable four or five days ago as a way forward, but not now. … Is Mubarak going to abolish the state of emergency now? Restore all internet communications? Redo the parliamentary elections? I don’t see that happening with him in town.”
Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch said Obama’s statement seemed to signal a desire for an immediate transition – one outside of Mubarak’s control. But the White House’s carefully nuanced public statements could be misinterpreted in some quarters.
“They are still suggesting these things, and not always saying them plainly,” Malinowksi said. “It is hard to move great events – or to be understood in the midst of such events – through subtlety.”
Can the U.S. keep the Egyptian military on its side?
Even amid the chaos of the last week – and the instability likely to come as Mubarak’s power diminishes – the Egyptian army can maintain a degree of stability that will benefit people there and the U.S., according to many analysts and members of Congress.
“Every American should be very appreciative of the fact that for years we were providing aid to the Egyptian army in terms of equipment and training because that army is our ace in the hole to make sure Egypt doesn’t go into a radical state,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday.
“The army is the key here. It is a respected institution,” the South Carolina Republican told reporters at the Capitol. “The way for Egypt to move forward is to create a new government through a new process and the army is the institution that can allow that process to come about without violence and legitimately…. That [interim] government has to have two components to it: it has to be respected by the public at large and it has to be supported by the army.”
In his statement Tuesday, Obama went out of his way to praise the armed forces for their restraint: “I want to commend the Egyptian military for the professionalism and patriotism that it has shown thus far in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people. I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful.”
Nevertheless, some liberals and conservatives want an immediate suspension of U.S. aid until Mubarak steps down – a move Graham called counterproductive, particularly with respect to the military.
“If you cut that aid, you will be cutting your own throat,” Graham said, arguing that such a move would shift power to the religious elements like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood: to deal or not to deal?
One central issue for the U.S. is whether the Muslim Brotherhood – a long-banned organization under several Egyptian regimes – emerges as a key political player in negotiations over a transfer of power, or in any post-Mubarak government. The U.S., too, has frowned on the group, which advocates for strict Islamic laws, opposes Israel and has a history of violent clashes with the Egyptian government.
But ignoring the Brotherhood completely could further undermine U.S. credibility in Egypt, and have the unintended consequence of elevating the organization’s status there and in the Muslim world. At the same time, if Americans welcomed the Brotherhood’s Egyptian branch with open arms, it would raise questions about offshoots like Hamas, which the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist organization.
In recent days, the U.S. seemed to soften its anti-Brotherhood stance a bit, signaling that religious groups like it could and probably will have roles in Egypt’s political future.
“It is clear that increase in democratic representation has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be the stable and reliable partner that the world sees in the Middle East,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.
Gibbs wouldn’t be drawn into discussing the Brotherhood specifically, but stressed that “to participate in this ongoing democratic process, one has to take part in it but not use it as a way of simply becoming or taking over that process simply to put themselves in power. We believe that any group should strongly weigh in on the side of non-violence and adherence to the law.”
Still, some veteran diplomats urge continued caution.
“The Muslim Brotherhood since its founding in 1928 has had one goal, and one goal only. And that is to establish an Islamic state in Egypt as a precursor to an Islamic state throughout the region,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, told Bloomberg TV Tuesday. “They are very flexible on tactics. And I think we need to be careful not to mistake their tactical flexibility for their long- term strategic goals.”
“I don’t think there has to be an expectation that some kind of a successor government needs to include the Muslim Brotherhood. It can’t be anti-Islam of course, and it may include people who are religious,” Kurtzer said. “But I’m not sure that I would want to see an organized Islamic extremist opposition be brought into that government.”
Should upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia be treated as isolated incidents – or a fast-moving trend?
Despite Obama’s celebration of human rights and democracy in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009, the ouster of a repressive government in Tunisia and massive street protests in Egypt have produced long faces instead of rejoicing in the West Wing.
Some want the president to go with the flow and encourage democratic changes in the Muslim and Arab world. Inspired by events in Egypt and Tunesia, protesters are demonstrating for change in Libya, and the king of Jordan dissolved his country’s parliament in an attempt to head off dissent.
“The Cairo speech was a vision of the Middle East that many of us want to see happen. There are not that many pathways to that place, but this is one of them,” Massimino said. “If the Obama administration is smart they will see this as potentially transformative in the way the Bush administration saw the war in Iraq as potentially transformative. This is the moment to be able to make a leap forward towards that vision.”
“This could deliver the kind of change that this administration and previous administrations at least paid lip service to,” Massimino said.
But Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center says the Obama administration is reluctant to go all-in with Egypt’s democracy movement – or throw Mubarak, an anti-terrorism ally, overboard – in a highly public way, fearful it could unravel delicate U.S. relationships around the world.
“They don’t want to send a message to our other authoritarian friends with whom we’re allied that ‘This is your fate.’ It’s unseemly,” said Miller, who also suggested that some of the anti-Mubarak rhetoric among U.S. politicians may be overheated. “This is not Saddam Hussein. This is not Slobodan Milosevic.”
How should the U.S. reassure Israel?
While some American conservatives are celebrating the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo, there is a strong possibility that similar regime changes could come to other North African countries with repressive governments, including Yemen, Algeria and even Libya. But in Israel – and among its many supporters in the United States – the falling-dominoes scenario is viewed with considerable alarm.
The Obama administration has taken major steps in recent months to repair relations with the American Jewish community, ties that were frayed by a series of highly public fights with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Those repairs could unravel, however, if the U.S. is seen as endorsing – or helping to unleash – a wave of Arab and Muslim-majority democracies without regard for the impact on Israel.
“The Israeli thinkers are very unhappy,” warned Steven Rosen, a former lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, describing their worst-case fears of uprisings paving the way for Islamic fundamentalists to take power.
“I believe the long run in Egypt will be the Muslim Brotherhood … The short run will be a pleasant moment of democratization, followed by the darkness,” he said.