Robert Kagan is co-chairman of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, and earlier this week he noted to Laura Rozen of Politico that “one thing I have been most struck by in meeting with [U.S. officials] at all levels over the past year is that as of yesterday, they have no plan in any direction.”
No kidding. Administration statements this week have been an incoherent mush.
But why is Obama winging it? It didn’t have to be this way.
During the Bush years the US embassy in Cairo maintained a small fund to support groups promoting democratic reforms in Egypt, bypassing the Egyptian government. As I noted back in July, the Obama administration ended support for this fund.
The Daily Telegraph — while failing spectacularly at making this context clear — reports that according to a WikiLeaked cable, one of the activists who has been arrested this week was sent to New York to meet with other pro-democracy activists. You have to read to the bottom of the story to notice that the embassy apprently ended regular contact with this dissident after 2009.
The Obama administration is trying to claim they’ve been pressuring Mubarak to liberalize all along. This is risible spin; Josh Gerstein takes it apart.
Earlier in the week the protests in Egypt were dominated by activists like the guy that the Telegraph reported on. The Muslim Brotherhood really only became a visible part of the protests yesterday, and even then were not the dominant force in the streets. I have my doubts that the Army will ever allow the Brotherhood to come out on top in the current crisis, but if they do, it will be the logical consequence of the Obama administration’s decision to turn away from the Bush-era Freedom Agenda. American support for an autocrat has a tendency to empower his most anti-American opponents. And make no mistake: While Obama’s statement last night was an attempt to move away from unequivocal support for Mubarak, what most Egyptians noticed about it was that he seemed to take Mubarak’s promises of reform at face value.
The one thing that is certain now is that Gamal Mubarak, who has fled to London, will not be taking over for his father. The newly minted Vice President Omar Suleiman is now the designated heir; it’s an open question whether that arrangement can calm things down (as Jackson Diehl notes, Suleiman isn’t what protesters of any ideological stripe have in mind). The best hope is, as John Guardiano suggests below, that the Army will embrace a democratic transition. But it’s far from certain, and this administration has done little to lay the groundwork that would have made it more likely.