Can Obama maintain his Egypt tightrope act?
President Obama is trying to balance transition and stability in Egypt, but events in Cairo may make that impossible.
The Obama administration is trying to maintain the balancing act it has pursued in Egypt, between political transition and stability, but a shaking tightrope – events on the ground – is raising questions about whether the current approach is tenable.Skip to next paragraph
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The administration has no choice but to continue this balancing act, some foreign policy experts say, as the US weighs its idealistic impulses – support for the unflagging protests and demands for freedom from an authoritarian regime – against the pragmatic demands of stewarding the sometimes-conflicting US interests in a crucial region.
But a growing number of voices in the foreign policy community, on the other hand, find the administration’s approach increasingly confusing and incoherent. President Obama has bounced from demanding a transition “now” to appearing to endorse a stability-first, slow-track process, these critics say.
The “confusion” these critics lament, some regional experts say, actually results from the administration’s reluctance to go where it originally appeared to be headed: firmly on the side of the Egyptian people and their demands for change.
“They [in the administration] keep stepping back from the brink of taking a principled position. In fact, they have gone there but then stepped back,” says Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East task force at the New American Foundation in Washington.
The balancing of priorities and interests – and the stepping back and forth that leads to – makes it seem as though the US is mostly reacting to events, Mr. Levy says. “The only way to get ahead of the curve is to take a principled position and stick with it,” he adds, “but it’s extremely difficult to do that.”
The administration’s most recent public pronouncements seem designed to underscore a sense that the US is keeping up pressure on the Mubarak regime to move swiftly towards genuine reform.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke Tuesday by telephone with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, and shortly thereafter the White House issued a statement listing the specific demands Mr. Biden had communicated.
Biden told Mr. Suleiman that the US expects the government to “restrain” the Ministry of Interior – the much-feared police – by “ending the arrests, harassment, beating, and detention” of protesters and journalists, and to “immediately” rescind the longstanding emergency law. The US also wants a “broadening” of participation in the national dialogue, and inclusion of the opposition in developing “a road map and timetable for transition.”
Biden reiterated US support for “an orderly transition in Egypt that is prompt, meaningful, peaceful, and legitimate,” the statement said. The closest the White House came to repeating Obama’s call of last week for Mubarak to “do the right thing” – presumably that he commit to leaving office sooner than his current plan of holding the reins until September – was Biden urging “immediate, irreversible progress that responds to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”