The Obama administration has been trying increasingly forcefully to persuade Hosni Mubarak to allow an "orderly transition" which is "meaningful." The administration has sent this message privately through multiple channels and has gradually escalated its public statements up to the President's statement on Tuesday that the transition must be meaningful and must begin now. Yesterday's frenzy 0f regime-orchestrated mob violence shows clearly that Mubarak is not interested in following this advice, and like so many dictators before him intends to cling to power by any means necessary. By unleashing violence and refusing the demand for an immediate, meaningful transition, Mubarak has now violated two clear red lines laid down by the President. There must be consequences. It's time to meet escalation with escalation and lay out, in private and public, that the Egyptian military now faces a clear and painful choice: push Mubarak out now and begin a meaningful transition, or else face international isolation and a major rupture with the United States.
Mubarak's actions should not have come as a surprise. His strategy was obvious from the start: to try to buy time until the protest fever broke, by offering a variety of token concessions, seeking to divide the opposition by co-opting political party leaders, playing on Western fears of Islamists, stoking nationalist resentments against foreign interference, carefully protecting his relations with the military leadership, and cashing in on decades of good relations with international leaders. His strategy thus far has been only partly successful -- the regime has clearly been surprised by the energy and tenacity of the protestors, as well as by how little international support he has found. Indeed, while many people have argued that Mubarak's unleashing of the thugs against the protestors in Tahrir Square came with Obama's blessing, I'd say it was quite the opposite -- an act of desperation when Obama privately and publicly rejected his "concessions" as inadequate.
What now? I would say that the time has come for the Obama administration to escalate to the next step of actively trying to push Mubarak out. They were right to not do so earlier. No matter how frustrated activists have been by his perceived hedging, until yesterday it was not the time to move to the bottom line. Mubarak is an American ally of 30 years and needed to be given the chance to respond appropriately. And everyone seems to forget that magical democracy words (a phrase which as far as I know I coined) don't work. Obama saying "Mubarak must go" would not have made Mubarak go, absent the careful preparation of the ground so that the potential power-brokers saw that they really had no choice. Yesterday's orgy of state-sanctioned violence should be the moment to make clear that there is now no alternative.
The administration's diplomacy thus far has been building to this moment. It would have been far preferable if the quiet, patient diplomacy had worked, without an explicit call by the U.S. for Mubarak to be thrown from power. It shouldn't be a surprise that Mubarak has preferred to stick with the depressingly familiar playbook of the struggling despot. The violence unleashed yesterday was as predictable as it was horrific. But that it happened after a series of highly public American warnings against such violence must now trigger an American response. After Mubarak violated clear American public red lines -- on violence and an immediate, meaningful transition -- there's really no choice.
The administration has already condemned and deplored yesterday's violence. It must now make clear that an Egyptian regime headed by Hosni Mubarak is no longer one with which the United States can do business, and that a military which sanctions such internal violence is not one with which the United Staes can continue to partner. The Egyptian military must receive the message loudly, directly and clearly that the price of a continuing relationship with America is Mubarak's departure and a meaningful transition to a more democratic and inclusive political system. It must understand that if it doesn't do this, then the price will not just be words or public shaming but rather financial and political. If Mubarak remains in place, Egypt faces a future as an international pariah without an international patron and with no place in international organizations or forums. If he departs, and a meaningful transition begins, then Egypt can avoid that fate.
Al Jazeera English, Feb 2, 2011, via Flickr Creative Commons