The massive crowds amassing in Tahrir Square today, more massive than any that have gathered since the uprising began two weeks ago, say that the efforts the Egyptian government is making to quell the revolution are having little impact on the street. And this presents the Obama administration with an opportunity: Make a big statement supporting the protesters' call for more dramatic and immediate change.
Last week, I’d thought that the U.S. was handling the Egyptian uprising reasonably well. It is a very difficult thing, and I generally appreciate President Barack Obama’s tendency towards caution and prudence. But as things look now, his caution and prudence—as evidenced by his voicing support for the baby steps Vice President Omar Suleiman has been taking toward instituting reform—is leaving him behind the curve in a way that could have a very damaging effect in terms of public perception. Among a public with whom, and at a time when, public perception is very important. From today’s New York Times:
“The result has been to feed a perception, on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, that the United States, for now at least, is putting stability ahead of democratic ideals, and leaving hopes of nurturing peaceful, gradual change in large part in the hands of Egyptian officials—starting with Mr. Suleiman—who have every reason to slow the process.”
As long as Suleiman, the military man, spy chief, alleged torturer and departing President Hosni Mubarak’s longtime consigliere is in charge of the transition, the transition is not in a healthy state. Press Secretary Robert Gibb’s usage of the term “unacceptable,” yesterday, to describe Suleiman’s contention that Egypt was “not ready for democracy” was a better tone for the administration to take. Suleiman is part of the problem. He may be a necessary part of the solution, too—but if that, for as short a time as possible.
God forbid the Naval Postgraduate School professor of national security affairs Robert Springborg is correct in the predictions he made in a recent piece for Foreign Policy magazine:
“The Obama administration, having already thrown its weight behind the military, if not Mubarak personally, thereby facilitating the outcome just described, can be expected to redouble its already bad gamble. Fearing once again that the regime might be toppled, it will lean on the Europeans, the Saudis, and others to come to Egypt's aid. The final nail will be driven into the coffin of the failed democratic transition in Egypt. It will be back to business as usual with a repressive, U.S.-backed military regime, only now the opposition will be much more radical and probably yet more Islamist.”
Yes, Egypt has been an ally for a long time. We have supported repressive dictatorships in the Middle East for a long time. Ugly compromises have been made for understandable reasons. But the longer Obama vocally supports the existing power structure in Egypt, the worse he looks, the worse the U.S. looks, in the eyes of the protesters. The protesters are in the right. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" would be disastrous in this instance. It’s time for a more assertive display that we understand that.
Image: Steven Crisp / REUTERS