“The United States wants Mubarak to stay in power, but the people have decided."
So says Jimmy Carter.
The former president is warning US officials to get on the right side of those events. And even those who may not approve of all the former president’s positions should pay heed to his counsel on what is emerging as a critic test of US foreign policy.
Carter, who in the late 1970s oversaw the negotiations that established a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, understands the political, social and religious dynamics of the Middle East better than any US president, former or current. So it is no small matter when he predicts that popular opposition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has grown so intense that “he will have to leave.”
While President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have sent mixed signals since anti-Mubarak and pro-democracy demonstrations—not always the same thing—erupted across Egypt a week ago, Carter is blunt about what he refers to as the “earthshaking” events that are sweeping the Middle East.
The former president, whose Carter Center closely monitors demands for democracy and evolution of the political discourse in the Middle East, counsels against the pop punditry that suggests the protests in Egypt are being “orchestrated” by Muslim fundamentalists.
Referring to one of the largest and most influential groups in Egypt, Carter notes: "The Muslim Brotherhood has stayed out of it."
“This is the most profound situation in the Middle East since I left office,” argues Carter, whose familiarity with the key players in Egypt makes him someone the Obama administration should be listening to.
Carter, a regular visitor to Egypt, says that Mubarak has steadily “become more politically corrupt.”
“He has perpetuated himself in office,” the former president, who has known the Egyptian leader for the better part of four decades, explained in remarks Sunday at his church in Plains, Georgia.
“Other US presidents would privately tell Mubarak you have got to have freedom,” recalled Carter. But, he says, the Egyptian president has not favored freedom. “As news organizations—television or newspapers—criticized Mubarak, they were put out of power or in prison,” said Carter.
The former US president’s distaste for the Egyptian president’s approach was evident in his remark Sunday that “in the last four or five years when I go to Egypt, I don’t go to talk to Mubarak, who talks like a politician. If I want to know what is going on in the Middle East, I talk to [Omar] Suleiman. And as far as I know, he has always told me the truth.”
Mubarak has appointed Suleiman, the country’s intelligence chief, as vice president. That appointment, made in response to the protests, is controversial. While Carter sees Suleiman as honest and “intelligent,” the Egyptian assumes the vice presidency as an extension of Mubarak’s autocratic rule—rather than a clear break from it.
Carter insights regarding Suleiman are valuable. But his insights regarding the importance of respecting the signals sent from the street when “the people have spoken” is even more vital.
This a time when the greatest challenge for US officials will be to get on the right side of history. As Congressman Keith Ellison, one of the savviest and most serious members of the House with regard to developments in Egypt, says: “The Middle East would be a much more powerful and dynamic place if there were less authoritarian regimes, and historically the US has supported all of them. We’re always on the side of ‘stability’ rather than justice. So let’s get on the right side this time.”
To get on the right side, the Obama administration and the State Department should have Ellison in the room as they discuss responses. And the president should be connecting with Carter, whose knowledge of the region, ties with key players and credibility in corridors of power and on the street could combine to make his counsel—and his public engagement—invaluable.
Carter was an Obama backer in 2008. But Obama has been cautious about relying on the former president, who has long been a target for attacks by the neoconservative ideologues who disdain his commitment to diplomacy and the seriousness he brings to discussions about Middle East peacemaking. But if ever there was a time for the current president to consult senior statesmen—and Carter is that, not just for the United States but on the international stage—this is it.