Chaos Theory

Washington's Confused Response Misses the Mark on Egypt

There has been no end to the confusion marking the Obama administration's reaction to the Egypt crisis. It has (inevitably, given Washington's worldview) identified the crisis as one more development in America's Great War Against Violent Extremism.

The uprising has not been treated as Egypt's crisis, or one of Arab political society, but rather as a challenge to American peace-enforcement in the Muslim Middle East. The administration has been addressing the Egyptians as if they were U.S. puppets that come to life. Most of the world has thought—as the Egyptians themselves do—that the affair fundamentally concerned the Egyptian people and nation, not the United States.

For example, on Tuesday, February 8, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates congratulated the Egyptian army's conduct during the crisis. "Well done!" he effectively said to the Egyptian generals and officers, as if he was about to give them Good Conduct medals for having conscientiously followed orders.

Obviously, concerned onlookers everywhere have been anxious about the Tahrir Square demonstrations and occupation, and impressed by the army's cool and impartial conduct in the midst of a situation where police provocation and brutality had worsened violence. It would have been entirely appropriate for Gates to express admiration for the army's performance. But the Egyptian army is under Egyptian command (which remains, if the U.S. secretary of defense failed to notice, that of President Hosni Mubarak), and it has not, so far as we known, been placed under U.S. command—nor has the Egyptian government. That's a source of tension in this crisis. Egypt's new vice president, Omar Suleiman, after meeting with an influential group of political figures on Sunday, released a statement expressing "their absolute rejection of any and all forms of foreign intervention in internal Egyptian affairs."

Last week, when U.S. special envoy Frank Wisner was visiting Cairo, it was not unreasonable to think that the fix was in. Washington's plan, presumably, was that Mubarak would announce that he would not be a candidate for the Egyptian presidency next September. The election would be brought forward. The constitution would be fixed so that Vice President Suleiman could legally take power, if elected (as planned). Support from moderate figures in Egyptian society would be cultivated. Washington had already made clear its confidence in Suleiman, who has been the CIA's contact man during the “war on terror” in matters of rendition and outsourced torture.

The Tahrir Square demonstrators were to be confined to the space they had commandeered and eased into less conspicuous byways by the army, using tact and avoiding violence (so as not to frighten tourists). It was assumed that, eventually, restored normality elsewhere in the country, plus the inertia, discouragement, and discomfort of the demonstrators, would eventually send them all home. (The size of Tuesday’s gatherings suggests this may be harder than previously thought).

Meanwhile, the most active figures in the uprising would be convinced to stand down, to go abroad, or, if necessary, to “disappear” during the coming weeks. Media attention would be refocused on proposed reforms and new political personalities so that a new multiparty parliament and government could be unveiled to appease the Egyptian electorate, limit possible contagion in the region, and calm the jittery Israelis.

Then President Mubarak made his speech saying that while he would not run for another presidential term in September, he intended to remain president until that election and made no mention of his son's possible political ambitions. Opinion in the army and elsewhere sustained him on grounds of honor; it would be humiliating to accept an U.S. dismissal. American relations with Mubarak suddenly turned frigid.

The U.S. position now is that there has to be an "orderly transition." Neither Mubarak nor his son should run for office. Obama declared on Tuesday that Egypt's government transition "must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."

Must? Now?

So much for the current politics of the affair. Another mistake Washington and others have made, the Israelis most of all (reasonably enough). This is not and never was an Islamist uprising. Religion has not played a significant role in Tunis or in Egypt. In a very wise comment, Ghassan Salame, former Lebanese minister of culture and now dean of the Graduate School of International Affairs at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, observes that time has passed the Islamists by.

They have been obsessed with organizational survival and the war with America, and the evolution of Arab society has left them behind. Education (including women's education), opportunity and globalism have transformed the young elites of all but the most backward countries. Their problems are not ones for which the Muslim Brotherhood has answers.

Today's movements of insurrection are defeats for the Islamists, just as much as they are for the authoritarian regimes. The Islamists have lost their moral authority, as have the dictators. These are movements that demand the remoralization of society, national self-respect, popular representation, an end to corruption and to rulers with $40-billion Swiss bank accounts (Mubarak's alleged retirement fund). That's what it's about—not terrorism or Israel.

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Related: Temporary Sanity and Walking Softly, by E. J. Dionne Jr.
The Battle for Egypt, by William Pfaff

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I read your article and see only success in US patience and stance. No real violence,[that charge of the light brigade on ten horses and 3 camels was comic relief]

 the $40 billion dollar  thieves are stepping down, so what's not to cheer about? The 8 year American revolution seems ugly in comparison and the French one even uglier so I say again... let's just say great job Egyptians and a good  American job of  hand holding.   

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About the Author

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).