Hundreds of Egyptians determined to drive President Hosni Mubarak from power spent all last night in Tahrir Square to keep the military from taking over the plaza. Today marks the seventh day of unrest in Egypt as the U.S. State Department began chartering evacuation flights for thousands of U.S. citizens stranded in the country. The longer the protests continue to rage, the more danger there will be that the army will wither into the crowds, throwing Egypt—and the region—into potentially violent chaos.
On Sunday, the military raised its presence, sending a column of tanks to enter Tahrir Square and buzzing the crowds with fighter jets. These actions came a day after the country’s most notorious prisons, Abu Zaabal and Wadi Natroun, were emptied of criminals and Islamic militants; uniformed police forces have all but disappeared (but appear to be trickling back to their posts today). Only the army and roving bands of armed vigilantes are in charge. With all but a few businesses closed and the economy at a complete standstill, it is unclear how long this standoff can last. One banner in Tahrir Square read: “The army has to choose between Egypt and Mubarak.”
There is a danger that the protests could lead to less, not greater, liberty in Egypt. While many of the groups organizing the protests (such as the April 6 Movement) do use pro-democracy rhetoric, there are powerful forces in the country that harbor Islamist goals that are incompatible with genuine democracy, including the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood. As Egypt’s biggest and best-organized political group, the Brotherhood will be well-positioned to hijack a revolt.
Some in the West are hoping that former IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei can emerge as a leader of the opposition. There are even reports that the Muslim Brotherhood may endorse ElBaradei’s leadership. But ElBaradei’s hold on power is extremely weak. The New York Times reports that the crowd’s reaction to a Sunday speech by ElBaradei was mixed, with one Muslim Brotherhood supporter telling the Times: “ElBaradei doesn’t live here and doesn’t know us. We need a leader who can understand Egyptians.” For his part, ElBaradei seems completely out of touch with what the Brotherhood represents, telling ABC’s Christiane Amanpour: “The Muslim Brotherhood is in no way extremist.”
The Obama Administration’s response so far has been slow and they have sent mixed signals. On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden denied that President Mubarak was a dictator and stated that Mubarak should not step aside. And on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” But yesterday she appeared on Fox News and urged the start of an “orderly transition” to bring about a “democratic, participatory government” while stopping short of calling for Mubarak’s ouster.
The Obama Administration has been slow to embrace calls for liberty in Egypt is completely consistent with the Obama Doctrine as applied in the Middle East. When the Iranian people rose against the regime in Tehran in the wake of a disputed national election, Obama offered virtually no support for the cries for freedom. He was too committed to his engagement strategy with the Iranian regime, believing his “charm offensive” would be enough to deter them from pursuing nuclear weapons. Those efforts have completely failed. Nevertheless, the “playing nice initiative” with Tehran fell flat. Today, the regime is more aggressive than ever—backing a terrorist takeover of the government in Lebanon, snubbing Western nuclear negotiators, and promoting an Islamist agenda across the region. As Elliott Abrams, who coordinated the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy at the National Security Council, wrote in The Washington Post:
This has been the greatest failure of policy and imagination in the administration’s approach: Looking at the world map, it sees states and their rulers, but has forgotten the millions of people suffering under and beginning to rebel against those rulers. “Engagement” has not been the problem, but rather the administration’s insistence on engaging with regimes rather than with the people trying to survive under them.
To give Egyptians the greatest possible prospects for liberty, the Obama Administration should change course and press any government that emerges to:
- Pledge to minimize the use of force and the loss of life in its efforts to restore order;
- Agree to open up the political system to allow meaningful participation by Egyptian citizens in forming a representative government; and
- Restore Internet service and access to the world.
The Obama Administration should review U.S. assistance to Egypt and make further assistance contingent upon undertaking these actions.