Could Obama have handled the uprising in Egypt better? Yes. Should Obama call for the ouster of Mubarak? No. And does it matter? No. The era of American domination of the Middle East has unraveled, and neither the Egyptian military nor the protesters look to the United States to carry their banner.
However the intense drama in Cairo unfolds—and it may take months, or years, to reach its conclusion— there’s no reason for Obama to embrace the discredited Freedom Agenda of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives. It’s only a matter of time before the authoritarian regime collapses in Cairo, and the revolutionaries don’t need the White House’s help.
Not that the road ahead will be easy.
Why? Because the Egyptian military is a vast and sprawling organism with institutional inertia and enormous self-interest in perpetuating itself in power. The military’s relationship to and with President Mubarak is pragmatic, that is, that the military will insist on itself remaining in power while being open to the idea of consigning Mubarak to the trash heap sooner or later and, from the looks of Der Spiegel’s report about exile in Baden-Baden, perhaps sooner. Third, that the declining power and influence of the United States in the Middle East makes it difficult and well-nigh impossible for the United States to oust Mubarak simply by demanding his head on a silver platter. Especially given the Egyptian military’s entrenched hold on power, there’s very little that President Obama can do, besides jawboning Cairo’s generals to get rid of Mubarak (perhaps after a polite waiting period), though I believe it’s readily apparent to the generals that Mubarak is a goner. It is, most likely, apparent to Mubarak, too. It appears quite certain that behind the scenes, ever tending to its imperial mission, the United States is quietly working with the generals to grease the skids under Mubarak.
Still, it’s wrong for the United States ever and always to demand that foreign leaders pack up and leave. Or have I missed something, and now it’s OK for the United States to demand regime change here and there? The rabid enthusiasm among the neoconservatives for a resuscitation of the repellent Freedom Agenda of the Bush era doesn’t mean that Obama ought to pay attention—quite the opposite.
There’s a practical problem, too, namely, that the Egyptian opposition is united only by its distaste for the odious Mubarak family. So far, it’s held together, but just barely, around its insistence that Mubarak step down. (That unity was sorely tested this weekend by the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to conduct exploratory talks with Vice President Suleiman, in concert with the New Wafd and some other players.) Now, once again—but for how long?—the anti-Mubarak forces are united, or seem to be, around the demand for his departure. That demand, most likely, will be met within days or weeks. If it is, then what? A united military command will face a loosely organized protest movement, which will presumably be compelled to sit down for protracted talks with the vice president, the prime minister and Defense Minister Tantawi. Not only will the generals hold most of the cards, but the opposition will undoubtedly find it hard to sustain the momentum of a countrywide uprising, and even turning out masses in Liberation Square may be difficult.