Egypt and the US: How Will They Proceed?

Monday, January 31, 2011

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. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty)

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.



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Comments [19]

D. Torres from Nathan Straus Projects

Obama should stop lying, when he
calls for "Free & Fair Elections" in

Because the Egyptians might well
elect someone that Obama & Israel
doesn't like.

The Palestinian people elected
Hamas, when there were "Free &
Fair Elections".

Egypt's Army & Police were made
in the USA.

If they attack the people of Egypt,
because they are fighting against
the USA backed dictator Hosni Mubarack, it will be with USA

Jan. 31 2011 02:18 PM
Calls'em from Here, there & everywhere

El-Baradei sounds reasonable, westernized and moderate. This is garbage. Al Baradei has been demanding the Muslim Brotherhood legalization, and now this organization is supporting him.

He's a liar; the media are helping him. He's currently a front man for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the parent organization of al Qaeda & Hamas, and has officially declared war on the US - not a party that would "not be a threat to the West" as he claims!

A lot of Egyptians are pretty savvy politically, but not enough of them, and most not in the right political direction.

Jan. 31 2011 11:18 AM
Jon from UES

He had the most ABSURD spin I have ever heard... the US training of Egypt military led to restraint!! It is the training and money that has repressed people for decades!!!!! Brian asked a tepid question and he says"Better tear gas than bullets" nice 3frame of mind that David has

Jan. 31 2011 10:41 AM
dan kaplan from Chelsea

I don't see how we can turn the war in Iraq into "Operation Iraqi Freedom," sacrificing multitudes of both American and Iraqi lives, and then not support a popular uprising for democracy in Egypt, for which we have to sacrifice no blood. If we don't get behind a march to democracy there, our moral voice will be scandalized even further.

Jan. 31 2011 10:36 AM
amalgam from Manhattan by day, NJ by night

While I agree generally with Taher as to his analysis with what U.S. foreign policy led to these events, there is only one sound, smart, not to mention, responsible strategy at this point for the U.S. govt. vis-a-vis the Egyptian/Arab uprising is to be "diplomatic" and to voice its support of American ideals of democracy and freedom (even if it's hypocritical).

There is only one solid strategy for the U.S. since it has minor influence in this grassroots event and even less leeway and would be served well by waiting, watching, and reviewing and then publicly supporting the pro-democracy forces, all the while working behind the scenes to depose Mubarak and begin a dialogue/transition to democracy.

Jan. 31 2011 10:35 AM
narcissa Smith-Harris from Chester New York

I think the Obama situation is doing just right. We must stop thinking that what is said in public mirrors what is being done. Diplomacy works like dog years.

The fact that we never repudiated the protests is a highly dramatic statement in diplomacy speak.When we said we thought the government was stable we were saying that we didn't think he would be overthrown, which is why we weren't shouting hurrah. Once we got words (as we clearly did) that the military would support the protests (or alternatively, the military got word that we would support them), we spoke in firmer tones. The firmest possible—money.

When we publicly indicated we would not send money if Mubarak did the Iran thing is huge, HUGE. We have no bigger stick.

Also, remember, we are not just speaking to Mubarak but all are other allies in the region, places like Yemen (which had protests) and Saudi Arabia.

I might also add that too heavy a hand in support would de-legitamize the protest. The middle east's favorite pastime is conspiracy theories, usually featuring America and Israel as the culprits. We must be reserved and restrained.

And I think Obama and Clinton have struck exactly the right public tone. We aren't teenagers on a reality show. We are adults, dealing with very real, very complicated issues, and should behave accordingly.

Jan. 31 2011 10:34 AM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

What we are seeing in Egypt is a failure of American foreign policy. A policy that was driven to maintain, by all costs, Israel’s primacy in the region. At the same time pretending to be an honest broker in the Israel/ Palestinian conflict.
Hosni Mubarak then was the preferred tyrant to keep Israel safe. Here, now we have neither safety for Israel nor a solution to the Palestine issue and a poor and desperate Egyptian population in a state of insurrection against a tyrant.
On top of which there is an incompetent response by the Obama administration as to what is to be done.

Jan. 31 2011 10:31 AM
Steve from manhattan

Mr. Sanger lists 2 prime reasons why the Obama administration is slow to support the people's will in Egypt, but leaves off an important 3rd reason. Obama is a major supporter of the US corporate system, and the fact is a majority of the massive US aid to Egypt simply comes right back to the US corporate military industrial complex to pay for weaponry for Egypt.

Another reason why the US has little credibility with the "Arab street" in general...

Jan. 31 2011 10:29 AM
Steve from manhattan

Mr. Sanger lists 2 prime reasons why the Obama administration is slow to support the people's will in Egypt, but leaves off an important 3rd reason. Obama is a major supporter of the US corporate system, and the fact is a majority of the massive US aid to Egypt simply comes right back to the US corporate military industrial complex to pay for weaponry for Egypt.

Another reason why the US has little credibility with the "Arab street" in general...

Jan. 31 2011 10:27 AM

How influental really are the far-right Islamists in Egypt? I've always had the impression that the threat of the more extremist Islamist groups in Egypt is largely overhyped (specifically by Mubarak himself to justify his oppression). The Muslim Brotherhood of today is not the same Muslim Brotherhood of the mid-20th century.

Jan. 31 2011 10:24 AM
Stephen A. from Astoria, NY

Trying to start a Twitter trend with #Egyptianreboot.

Create a title for the inevitable postEgyptian protest movement Egyptian government franchise reboot!

"No Country for Old Dictators!"

Jan. 31 2011 10:22 AM
APRIL from Manhattan

I find it remarkable that Mr. Sanger says "Egypt could go Islamic". Most Egyptians ARE Muslim! Is every Muslim now a terrorist? In general, I think it highly ironic that Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State for one of my two least favorite presidents, actually said the D word, which Obama or Clinton have yet to do.

Jan. 31 2011 10:21 AM
Rose from Brooklyn, of course

We should respect the White House's slowness and caution. The Bush administration didn't not take caution and were too speedy in their reaction to Iraq and look where that got us!

We should look at history and remember not only the Middle East, but other mistakes like the Congo. The U.S. backed the wrong guy there and regretted supporting a dictatorship for over 30 years

Jan. 31 2011 10:21 AM
Matt from Great Neck

What evidence is there to suggest that Egypt will NOT turn out to be another Iran, 1979? Or at least that Egypt will eventually, after years of faux "democracy" and power struggles, will NOT become another Iran-backed satellite, i.e. Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, etc.?

Jan. 31 2011 10:17 AM
whoindatgarden from Manhattan

If Egypt becomes a open transparent Democracy, is Pakistan next? WHat does that mean for the U.S. given nuclear weapons are involved as well.

Jan. 31 2011 10:12 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Just when it looked like the Muslim world was moving toward the new caliphate - Al Queda, Sharia law,etc., recruiting the young people, there is a movement for democracy among the young people. An overnight occurrence.

A book to consider is:

Phares, Walid 'The coming revolution : struggle for freedom in the Middle East' 2010, which says that there are pro-democracy groups of young people throughout the Middle East.

Jan. 31 2011 10:07 AM

I have been following the events in Egypt closely from sources all over the world. The leaders that have come out in support of the dictator Mubarak in their public statements so far reads as follows: Benjamin Netenayaho Israel, King Abdullah Saudi Arabia, Ghadahaffi Libiya, Chavez Venezuela. The bunch of dictators, military colonial occupiers, repressive kings will be on the wrong side of history when it is all said and done.

Jan. 31 2011 10:07 AM
nancy from nyc

Mr. Mubarak should think deeply and question himself…isn’t enough 30 years of regimen? What he has been thinking of? Who in the right mind thinks 30 years is possible and functional; especially in this new era of instant communication and globalization. Young people are watching and getting inform.
Egyptians, you need to get organize, you need to have a plan of who is going to be in charge when Mubarak steps out. Who are the candidates that you, Egyptians would like to have as a new administrators.
I plead with the Egyptians not to destroy the history; the museums, land marks these are your legacy, your tourist revenues.
Mr. Mubarak, and all those who are in power exploiting nations and people, just, take notice. 30 years is too long to believe in running a democracy…

Jan. 31 2011 10:05 AM

risk vs. reward from povs of china? israel? us? russia? official, political, economic? short/long term? capitalism? food security? subsidies? is it "good for the jews?" etc etc

Jan. 31 2011 09:58 AM

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