By Jim Lobe (*) and Ali Gharib
HAVANA TIMES, Jan 29, 2011 (IPS) — With tens of thousands of demonstrators still milling around the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities Friday night, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was struggling to come up with a policy response to an uprising that may be on the verge of ousting Washington’s most important ally in the Arab world.
After a 30-minute phone call with President Hosni Mubarak Friday evening, Obama said he had told the Egyptian leader, “What’s needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people, a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens, and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people.”
Obama has also scheduled a highly unusual meeting of his top national security officials at the White House Saturday to assess the situation and how Washington should react.
“The administration at this point is clearly in crisis management mode, not in crisis resolution mode,” Robert Danin, a former senior Middle East official under George W. Bush, told a press teleconference organized by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Friday afternoon.
“It has not yet appeared to have made a determination about what it sees as the longevity of the Mubarak regime. This is quickly moving toward a Marcos moment,” he added, in a reference to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 message to the late Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, that it was time to resign in the face of massive popular protests.
Whether that will be necessary remained unclear here, although the inability of the Egyptian police forces to maintain control over the massive and seemingly broad-based demonstrations that took place in Cairo and other major cities Friday persuaded many Washington observers that the days of Mubarak’s 30-year reign are numbered, despite his televised announcement shortly after midnight in Cairo that he would name a new government Saturday.
Mubarak’s concessions fell notably short of the kind of concessions a growing number of analysts here say will be the minimum necessary for Mubarak to placate protesters and stay in the saddle: an end to the state of emergency that has prevailed for all but 18 months of the last 43 years, free and fair elections, and a pledge not to have his son, Gamal, succeed him.
Asked explicitly about Mubarak’s prospects during a brief press appearance with the Colombian vice president Friday afternoon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called Egypt “stable” on Tuesday, chose to ignore the question, although she noted that “what will eventually happen in Egypt is up to Egyptians”.
“The real question we’re focused on is: How can we support a better future for the people of Egypt that responds to their aspirations?” she went on, urging the government “to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces” and engage in a dialogue with “the people of Egypt”.
Her remarks came shortly before an appearance by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs who, for the first time, suggested that Washington may be prepared to use its not inconsiderable aid to Egypt as leverage to prod Mubarak in that direction.
Since the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel, Washington has provided Egypt with an average of about 1.3 billion dollars in military and security aid and another 800 million dollars in economic aid each year (with the latter number recently reduced), making Cairo the second biggest recipient of U.S. largesse after Israel for the past generation.
The military aid is particularly important since the Egyptian military – whose senior commanders were in Washington for their annual meeting with their U.S. counterparts this week and flew back home Friday – is now considered the decisive factor in determining whether the regime survives or falls.
“We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days,” said Gibbs, who also appealed, as did Clinton, for Mubarak to restore Egyptians’ access to the Internet, Twitter, and other social media which was abruptly cut off late Thursday night, apparently to discourage precisely the kind of massive demonstrations that the country witnessed just 12 hours later.
Both Clinton’s and Gibbs’s remarks offered a remarkable contrast to statements by Vice President Joseph Biden on public television Thursday evening. While he, too, stressed the importance of Egypt’s pursuing political and economic reform, he also praised Mubarak as having been “very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East”.
“I would not refer to him as a dictator,” Biden remarked.
His assertions, as well as those by Clinton and Gibbs, illustrated what some analysts have referred to as the administration’s “two-track policy” in dealing with the crisis to date.
“On the one hand, it has tried to affirm its continued support for the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who has been a friend to the United States,” CFR’s Danin said. “And, at the same time, it has tried to articulate principles that are commensurate with what the protestors are calling for, short of regime change.”
“The problem with this is that it comes pretty late in the day, [and] it’s very difficult to reconcile the two positions.”
Given the speed with which the crisis has developed, a growing number of observers here believe Washington, which appears to be moving slowly in that direction anyway, needs to come out more clearly in favor of the democratic aspirations of the protesters, an effort which appears to have begun with Obama’s statement after his conversation with Mubarak.
“My hope is that when the president does speak, he doesn’t focus on the need for stability, but on the need to respond to those who are demanding freedom,” said Steven Cook, a Mideast specialist at the CFR who just returned from Cairo Friday, speaking before Obama’s remarks. Mubarak has “to understand that we are not going to allow them to do just about anything to regain control.”
More broadly, said Helena Cobban, a veteran Middle East specialist, “Obama needs to admit that Washington in the past has not listened hard enough to the voices of the peoples of the region.”
(*) Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.