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Obama's handling Egypt pretty well

After President Obama spoke last night about the situation in Egypt, my Twitter feed and inbox filled up with angry denunciations, with lots of people complaining bitterly that he had endorsed Mubarak's grim struggle to hold on to power, missed an historic opportunity, and risked sparking a wave of anti-Americanism. Once I actually read the transcript of his remarks, though, I felt much better. I think the instant analysis badly misread his comments and the thrust of the administration's policy. His speech was actually pretty good, as is the rapidly evolving American policy. The administration, it seems to me, is trying hard to protect the protestors from an escalation of violent repression, giving Mubarak just enough rope to hang himself, while carefully preparing to ensure that a transition will go in the direction of a more democratic successor.

It's crucial to understand that the United States is not the key driver of the Egyptian protest movement. They do not need or want American leadership -- and they most certainly are not interested in "vindicating" Bush's freedom agenda or the Iraq war, an idea which almost all would find somewhere between laughable, bewildering, and deeply offensive. Suspicion of American intentions runs deep, as does folk wisdom about decades of U.S. collaboration with Mubarak. They are not really parsing Hilary Clinton's adjectives. Their protest has a dynamic and energy of its own, and while they certainly want Obama to take their side forcefully and unequivocally they don't need it.

What they do need, if they think about it, is for Obama to help broker an endgame from the top down --- to impose restraints on the Egyptian military's use of violence to repress protests, to force it to get the internet and mobile phones back online, to convince the military and others within the regime's inner circle to ease Mubarak out of power, and to try to ensure that whatever replaces Mubarak commits to a rapid and smooth transition to civilian, democratic rule. And that's what the administration is doing. The administration's public statements and private actions have to be understood as not only offering moral and rhetorical support to the protestors, or as throwing bones to the Washington echo chamber, but as working pragmatically to deliver a positive ending to a still extremely tense and fluid situation.

I completely understand why activists and those who desperately want the protestors to succeed would be frustrated --- anything short of Obama gripping the podium and shouting "Down With Mubarak!" probably would have disappointed them. But that wasn't going to happen, and shouldn't have. If Obama had abandoned a major ally of the United States such as Hosni Mubarak without even making a phone call, it would have been irresponsible and would have sent a very dangerous message to every other U.S. ally. That doesn't mean, as some would have it, that Obama has to stick with Mubarak over the long term -- or even the weekend -- but he simply had to make a show of trying to give a long-term ally one last chance to change.

The key to the administration's emerging strategy is the public and private signal that this is Mubarak's last chance, that the administration does not expect him to seize it, and that the U.S. has clear expectations of those who might succeed him. The key line in his remarks here is this:

"When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."

This is not the language of capitulation to Mubarak's empty promises of reform. It's a pretty sharp challenge to him to demonstrate serious change immediately, which in no way commits to backing Mubarak if he fails to do so. And comments made by various administration officials suggest that they don't really expect him to be able to deliver. This blunt conditionality has to be understood in tandem with White House Spokseman Robert Gibbs' carefully chosen words that U.S. economic and military aid to Egypt would now be reviewed -- a direct, almost unprecedented form of pressure on Egypt for which many democracy activists have clamored for years to no avail.

It's also crucial that the U.S. is signaling directly and clearly to the Egyptian military that the administration will not accept a massive, bloody escalation in repressive force. Secretary of State Clinton's statement well-crafted message yesterday morning, reinforced by Gibbs and then Obama, was important: not just wringing their hands over the violence, as many seem to think, but sending a pretty clear and strong signal to the Egyptian army about American red lines. That might not be as morally satisfying as the more "full blooded" language which many would like to hear, but in the end it is likely to be crucial to brokering a decent endgame.

What happens next? I really don't think that Mubarak's gambit of dismissing the government is going to work. The protestors want to be rid of him, not of a faceless government of technocrats. His speech last night had an air of desperation, disconnect and delusion which will only feed the protests. Al-Jazeera has been filling up with prominent Egyptian figures disparaging Mubarak, and there's a palpable sense of people positioning themselves for a new era. It isn't over yet --- Mubarak is likely calculating that if he can survive only a few more days, the protest fever will break and he can go back to the old status quo. It's not like he had much legitimacy or popular support before these protests, and his regime has long been comfortable ruling without it. But the rush of events has a feel of finality to it. It's hard to believe, and it's far from certain even now, but as an accelerated Ben Ali script plays out it really is possible that Mubarak could be gone by tonight.

And then will come the hard part. This part of the speech, which went largely unremarked, may prove to be the key to the future: "When I was in Cairo, shortly after I was elected President, I said that all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion. That is the single standard by which the people of Egypt will achieve the future they deserve." If the U.S. can help the Egyptian people achieve those aspirations, then it will be a major diplomatic success which resonates far beyond Egypt's borders.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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