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.

Ibrahim Usta / AP
A man holds a portrait of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak reading "No You Can't (copying Barack Obama's famous "Yes We Can") during a protest against Mubarak's regime in Istanbul, Turkey, on February 4. Increasing pressure from protesters – and governments – throughout the Middle East may make it impossible for President Obama to maintain his careful balance of foreign policy objectives.

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.

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.”

How long the administration will have that statement stand as its position towards events in Egypt is unclear. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to spend several hours at the White House, meeting with President Obama and other senior administration foreign policy and security officials.

The meetings were sure to take up the administration’s dissatisfaction with some of Mr. Suleiman’s recent comments – such as the view that Egypt is not yet ready for democracy – and the pace and breadth of initial transition measures, some officials and policy experts said.

But even as criticism of the administration’s handling of the crisis has grown, some foreign policy experts – and in particular some former diplomats with long careers of managing international crises – have stepped up support for the administration’s balancing of interests and principles.

“This president, who is trying mightily to accommodate the pull of idealism and real world interests, has no option but to continue to try to achieve both,” writes Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of State for political affairs in the George W. Bush administration, in a commentary on the Foreign Policy website.

On the one hand, it will be “vital” for Obama to continue to speak out “in support of a future of freedom in the Middle East,” says Ambassador Burns, now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School after 27 years in the foreign service. But Obama will also have to keep in mind some of the US’s “most important global objectives,” he adds, including Egyptian-Israeli peace and Egypt’s role in “countering” Al Qaeda, Iran, and allied groups like Hezbollah.

That last point conjures up for New America’s Levy the argument he says the Egyptian government, Israel, and other Arab governments have been impressing upon the Obama administration. “They’ve been really pressing hard with this idea that if Mubarak goes the way of [Tunisia’s] Ben Ali, it’s a possible floodgate” of chaos and extremism, Levy says. And as these countries seek to influence US actions, he adds, they know that “frightening images of radical Islam … play particularly well in the US.”

Burns says Obama may yet have to choose “at some point down the line” between the sides he is trying to balance, but he says the administration so far is right to stay on the tightrope.

Editor's note: Monitor staff photographer Ann Hermes shot video of a large protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday.

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