Inspired by events in Tunisia, Egyptians are holding sizable anti-government protests in many cities today. In this context, it’s worth highlighting a critique Jackson Diehl made last week:
More surprising is the Obama administration’s de facto suport for Mubarak’s immobility. On Tuesday, Obama called Mubarak; according to a White House “readout,” they discussed “a broad range of issues, to include the New Year’s attack on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, developments in Tunisia and Lebanon, and how best to advance Middle East peace.”
According to both the statement and my own sources, here is what the two did not discuss: the need for change of any kind in Egypt. This in spite of the fact that Mubarak just staged a rigged parliamentary election in which his opposition was systematically and sometimes brutally suppressed and has scheduled a similar presidential “election” for later this year that would extend his term in office — and Egypt’s political stasis — for another six years.
By failing to mention reform, Obama effectively placed a public U.S. bet on Mubarak’s ability to prevent any spread of Tunisia’s unrest. According to the White House statement, the president “shared with President Mubarak that the United States is calling for calm and an end to violence…” The statement went on to repeat U.S. support for democracy in Tunisia — a position the administration adopted only after Ben Ali’s overthrow. But observers in Egypt and across the Middle East were quick to get the message: Obama’s support for “free and fair elections” does not extend to Egypt.
In one sense this is unsurprising: For two years the administration has soft-pedaled the cause of reform in Arab autocracies and above all in Egypt. The thinking seems to be that Mubarak’s help is needed in the Arab-Israeli peace process, which Obama has futilely focused on at the expense of other issues; that there is no alternative to Mubarak, despite the emergence of a mass reform movement behind Nobel peace prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei; and that there is no possibility of a popular revolution in Egypt.
That analysis may be correct — but it ignores the lessons that Middle East experts are drawing from Tunisia. The Carnegie Endowment’s Michelle Dunne cites three: “First, widespread economic grievances such as youth unemployment can indeed quickly translate into specific demands for political change, and second, this can happen even in the absence of strong opposition organizations.”
“The third lesson of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was perhaps the most memorable of all: When long-postponed change finally comes, it is often startling how relatively little effort and time it can take.”
These lessons apply to a number of Arab autocracies, including Algeria, Libya, Jordan and Syria. But for United States, the stakes are highest in Egypt. In that respect, Obama’s silence on the need for Egyptian reform isn’t just short-sighted. It’s dangerous.
Indeed it is, and it will be interesting to note what, if anything, Obama has to say about events in Egypt in tonight’s State of the Union address.
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