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Middle Eastern Despots Tell Obama, ‘Go Slow’ on Egypt

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The NY Times notes that some of the most despotic of the U.S.’ Middle Eastern allies have engaged in a full court press on the Obama administration to persuade it that siding with the Egyptian  Revolution would be a bad move for the U.S. and for them.  Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan and the Gulf States have united (and coordinated?) their assault on the former U.S. position that Mubarak had to “go yesterday, to paraphrase administration spokesperson Robert Gibbs of a few days ago:

Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have each repeatedly pressed the United States not to cut loose Egypt’s president,Hosni Mubarak, too hastily, or to throw its weight behind the democracy movement in a way that could further destabilize the region, diplomats say. One Middle Eastern envoy said that on a single day, he spent 12 hours on the phone with American officials.

There is evidence that the pressure has paid off. On Saturday, just days after suggesting that it wanted immediate change, the administration said it would support an “orderly transition” managed by Vice President Omar Suleiman. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Mr. Mubarak’s immediate resignation might complicate, rather than clear, Egypt’s path to democracy, given the requirements of Egypt’s Constitution.

“Everyone is taking a little breath,” said a diplomat from the region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing private conversations. “There’s a sense that we’re getting our message through.”

While each country has its own concerns, all worry that a sudden, chaotic change in Egypt would destabilize the region or, in the Arab nations, even jeopardize their own leaders, many of whom are also autocrats facing restive populations.

The money quote in this passage is in the last sentence.  This anti-progressive “Quartet” is prepared to sell the Egyptian protest movement down the river on behalf of “regional stability,” which means their own personal power and hides.  What I don’t understand is how this lies in the U.S. interest to retain Mubarak and his pack of cronies and abandon the Revolution.  Saudi Arabian oil?  OK, that’s a consideration.  The Israel lobby?  That too is a consideration Obama has to take into account.

But when you balance that out against the prevailing winds in the Middle East as expressed by the Tunisian and Egyptian movements for political change and the winds that are blowing through other Arab nations like Yemen, Algeria, Libya, etc. it seems that acquiescing in the conniving of the despots puts us clearly on the wrong side of history.  If you look at the broad path of political development in regions like Latin America, central and Eastern Europe, and elsewhere the trends are moving toward political reform, the development of civil societies, and empowering the previously disenfranchised.  While I wouldn’t make this an across the board generalization since there are individual examples that contradict my claim, it seems clear to me that the Middle East (specifically north Africa, Yemen, Turkey and possibly Lebanon) is generally moving in this direction.

If we betray this developing movement for the sake of a the mess of porridge represented by Saudi oil or Israel lobby muscle, it will be not just an opportunity missed, it would mark another nail in the coffin of the U.S. as a major world player whose views are solicited and influential.  The young people in Tahrir Square, for better or worse, expect something from America.  They expect us to live up to our professed values.  If we sacrifice them on the altar of real politick, they will ignore us going forward as having anything relevant to say to them.  If they eventually take power, we will mean little or nothing to them.

Yet another indication of how tone-deaf we have become in this quotation from Hillary Clinton:

“I understand the concerns of everybody in the region,” Mrs. Clinton said Sunday. She said that she had spoken to King Abdullah II of Jordan and that President Obama had made calls to other leaders. State Department officials, she said, were constantly speaking with their counterparts in the region.

Well, no she doesn’t understand the concerns of “everybody” in the region.  She only understands the interests and concerns of the ruling elites, who are increasingly isolated and out of touch.  So if she wants to throw in the U.S.’ lot with them and ignore the actual people who live in those countries and feel betrayed by these same thugs, then be my guest.  But don’t fool yourself into thinking that you actually understand or care about the potential future leaders of these nations once they are on the path of political reform.

This is the type of scaremongering nonsense she’s listening to from the region’s autocrats:

One Arab diplomat likened the democracy movement to a train fueled by university students and human rights advocates.

“Eventually, those students will have to get off that train and go back to school, and the human rights people will have to go back to work, and you know who will be on the train when it finally rolls into the station?” the diplomat asked. “The Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Times article takes pains to note that Joe Biden gave Suleiman a tongue-lashing for dissing the calls for democracy of the Cairo demonstrators.  But the problem with this is the same one we had when we threw in our lots with South Vietnamese dictators during the Vietnam War.  They may be sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches.  And once they’re your son of a bitch, they’re an albatross around your neck as well.  You have little leverage over a Suleiman when you tell him he must renounce the very structures which enable him to cling to power.  He doesn’t see his role as you do.  You may see him as a transitional figure.  But there’s nothing in his political vocabulary to account for that and he won’t stand for it.  As witness this clueless statement in which Suleiman threatens a military coup unless protestors go home:

Mr. Suleiman warned the protesters, most of whom are opposed to any negotiations while Mr. Mubarak is in power, that the only alternative to talks is a “a coup.”

“And we want to avoid that — meaning uncalculated and hasty steps that produce more irrationality,” he said, according to the official news agency.

“There will be no ending of the regime, nor a coup, because that means chaos,” Mr. Suleiman said. And he warned the protesters not to attempt more civil disobedience, calling it “extremely dangerous.” He added, “We absolutely do not tolerate it.”

Is this really the wagon to which we want to hitch our star?  Do we want to be on the side of such a bloody disaster when it happens?  Do we really think we have enough leverage with these tin pot dictators that we can stop them from perpetrating mass carnage if they perceive themselves under threat or in jeopardy?  I wouldn’t put my money on it if I were Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Here is what the real Egypt wants and expects from us:

Many at the protests buttonholed Americans to express deep disappointment with President Obama, shaking their heads at his ambiguous messages about an orderly transition. They warned that the country risked incurring a resentment from the Egyptian people that could last long after Mr. Mubarak is gone.

Do we have the guts to recognize this and act accordingly?

If not, we’re sentencing ourselves and Egypt to a future cataclysm which will rid, or at least attempt to rid, the nation of the same thugs it is now trying to eject.  The only difference will be that you will have the example of this failed revolution before your eyes and people will want to ensure they do everything possible not to lose next time.  That may mean rivers of blood in Tahrir Square, not just charging camels and horses, but tanks plowing down thousands of protestors.  It may mean a truly revolutionary cabal organizing against the regime and using violence to take power.  It opens the political space to all sorts of potentially bad actors exploiting the deep-rooted frustrations of the nation’s masses.  Yes, perhaps even Al Qaeda-like forces.  But they key is to recognize we’re not there yet.  We’re in a potentially good space and should make the most of it while we can.

There are neocon voices speaking of Obama “losing” Egypt to the Islamists.  But the truth is that Egypt is his to lose if he does nothing now to embrace democracy and the opening toward reform.  The problem is Obama isn’t a politician who sees into the future.  He’s focussed on short-term interests.  And that is a tremendous weakness of his presidency and his politics.  Whatever you want to say about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, they were smart enough to map out a sophisticated global strategy in their foreign policy which resulted in the tremendous achievements of the opening to China, among others (OK, let’s leave aside Chile which wasn’t so good).  Obama displays none of that forward-thinking needed in this situation.  And our country and Egypt will suffer for that.

Israel too plays an interesting role in this Quartet.  Though it is not ruled by the same types of despots as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (or Jordan for that matter), it has the same retrograde interests in maintaining a status quo that oppresses the broad masses of the populaces of these nations.  Israel, at least as its current elite sees its interests, needs to keep a lid on the aspirations of the common man and woman because Israel senses that democratization will hurt them.  It will establish new allies for the Palestinian cause and further isolate Israel in the region.

Of course, a more proactive Israeli policy seeking rapprochement with the frontline states and resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict would put Israel in a commanding position as a potential regional economic leader.  And Israel’s democracy, if it were ever fully realized, could also serve as an example.  Instead, I’m sorry to say, Israel is frittering away these prospective advantages with rear-guard actions like the ones outlined above, which only increase the chances that it will be further marginalized should the winds of political change continue as I expect.

This article first appeared at Tikun Olam and is reprinted with the author’s permission

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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