Egypt and the US: How Will They Proceed?

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Egyptian demonstrators protest in central Cairo amidst tear gas fire by Egyptian police to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and calling for reforms on January 25, 2011.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, David Sanger, New York Times Chief Washington correspondent and author of The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, looked at Washington's response to the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East.

The U.S. has been tiptoeing around the protests in Egypt since they began last week. The administration's comments have evolved from careful commentary, like Secretary of State Clinton saying the Egyptian government was "stable," to stronger requests, like White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs calling on President Mubarak not to use force against protesters.

The U.S. has supported Egyptian leadership for decades, and Sanger said that relationship makes the situation in Egypt a little complicated for the Obama administration.

What seemed to us, or to much of America, to be a helpful calm in Egypt, and Egypt that was run by a secular strong man, may have in fact had significant radiating results that we are only now coming to terms with.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is emerging as an opposition leader and has his own suggestions for how the U.S. should deal with Mubarak. He called it an "oxymoron" to ask a dictator to implement a democracy and said the U.S. needs to "let go" of Mubarak. Sanger said it's hard to argue with ElBaradei's logic, but there are other pressures on U.S.-Egyptian ties.

One is the fear of a vacuum, that if ElBaradei did not emerge as sort of a reasonable interim figure, somebody the west can deal with, then the chaos that could ensue after Mubarak left would give Islamists an opportunity to get in and take advantage of this and perhaps hijack the process. So, their one fear here is an Iran-like revolution.

And the second fear: that whatever government they get, even a coalition government would be much less enthused about supporting any peace process with the Palestinians and might come to question over time the peace agreement with Israel that was signed in 1979. So they want to make sure, I think, in Washington that before Mubarak leaves that there is at least a sense of an orderly process that would follow.

However, Sanger said ElBaradei has had a touchy relationship with Washington, especially from his time at the IAEA, so this doesn't make anything easier.

Mr. ElBaradei has got an abiding suspicion of Washington and its motives and sometimes that's legitimate and sometimes it's not, but it is certainly a part of his make-up. And it was probably aided by the fact that the Bush administration not only bugged his telephones at the IAEA but tried to get him thrown out as the director general in part because of his criticisms of them post-Iraq...It's not necessarily clear that he's going to bring about the kind of transition that the White House would design if it had a vote.

Over the past week of protests, Sanger said the U.S. involvement has shone through in one understated way.

There is no military in the Arab world that is more entwined with the U.S., more trained by the U.S., more equipped by the U.S. than the Egyptian military... In the past week quietly, American officers who have trained with their Egyptian officers here in the United States, or have been over there, have had a chance through email, through phone conversations to sort of send a moderating message; hey, don't open up fire on these protesters.

Sanger said it's difficult to predict how much longer Mubarak will stay in office, but a transition is clearly underway.

What they want to do is get a smooth and stable transition and not a descent into chaos and in the end, we don't get to decide here. All we get to do is use whatever levers of power the United States has to try to manage transition, but I think it's pretty clear that the United States, as a country, this isn't about us... We're  in a moment right now on the Egypt issues where this isn't about the ideology of how much you do democracy promotion or not, this is a question of, if a transition is under way, how does one make it the least violent.