A Mistake of Historic Proportions?

After days of confused and mixed messages, the Obama administration finally seems to be making it clear that it wants Mubarak to go now. Officials still refuse to say this bluntly in public, but it’s being reported that this is what Mubarak and his close associates are being told behind the scenes. Nevertheless, the brutal attempts to intimidate and frighten off the anti-government activists, clearly orchestrated by the regime, indicates that Mubarak has no intention of immediately agreeing to the US’s demands. The White House’s special envoy, US ambassador Frank Wisner, who had been sent to ‘nudge Mubarak to the exits’, returned home last night without success. As dawn breaks on 3 February and clashes between pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters continue – though it seems that the pro-democracy activists have secured control of Tahrir Square and only a few hundred Mubarak supporters remain in the immediate vicinity – it’s unclear how events will unfold.

Sitting here in London, safe and sound, with access to whatever news is coming out of Egypt, I have doubts that the relentless concentration by many media outlets on the events in Tahrir Square is giving us the real picture.

First, we have no clear idea exactly what is going on behind the scenes, either between the regime and the Obama administration or within the regime itself.

Second, unless you search it out, there is little exposure of what is going on elsewhere in Egypt (except in Alexandria): in the side streets and suburbs of the cities, the towns, the villages.

Third, one imagines that the activists are furiously trying to regain the initiative and are organizing behind the scenes to mobilise support in huge numbers, but there must be great fear that the intimidation and violence of yesterday will deter many people from gathering in the centre of the city again, especially the women, children and whole families who came out to demonstrate in the peaceful and carnival-like atmosphere on Tuesday.

Fourth, although the main media outlets have carried some detailed reports that give a good sense of what’s happening on the ground at particular moments and that feature interviews with Egyptians of different views, they still seem to fall back on simplistic lines of questioning about the ‘threat’ of the Muslim Brotherhood, the danger to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the possible ‘domino’ effect in the region. It’s not that these issues are of no account, but they reflect Western concerns rather than the concerns of the Egyptians who are behind the uprising: democracy, freedom, social justice, economic reform, jobs, corruption, ‘the excesses of the state, lack of good governance, rule of law and accountability’.

With the stance of the Obama administration hardening, it looks increasingly difficult to see how Mubarak can cling on to power. And yet there are those who think that if not Mubarak, then at least the system he imposed will survive. The Guardian quotes from a particularly pessimistic article in Foreign Policy by Robert Springborg, ‘Game over: the chance for democracy in Egypt is lost’: ‘The historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe, and even Israel could do business will have been lost, maybe forever. Uncle Sam will have to eat yet more humble pie, served up by the dictator who has just been insulting him.’

Springborg is particularly harsh on the Obama administration, and even though there’s no guarantee that the scenario he predicts – ‘It will be back to business as usual with a repressive, U.S.-backed military regime, only now the opposition will be much more radical and probably yet more Islamist’ – will come about, questions do indeed have to be asked as to whether the US, and Europe too, might have made a mistake of historic proportions in not coming out much sooner and more strongly, and in public, in support of the pro-democracy activists.

The responses of the Obama administration and the European Union to the uprising in Egypt have looked distinctly flaky at times. Caught between the Scylla of fear of an Islamist takeover and the Charybdis of appearing to prop up a brutal regime, at first the administration seemed incapable of conveying a clear message about what it wanted the Mubarak regime to do.  And in its desperation not to appear to be dictating events, it fell into the trap of calling for restraint on both sides, thereby drawing an equivalence between an almost completely peaceful anti-Mubarak mass movement and bands of thugs hired by the regime to terrorise the activists.

The Europeans have been just as inept. As Timothy Garton Ash points out:

Politically, Europe’s reaction has so far been embarrassed silence, followed by very cautious encouragement of peaceful change . . . Unlike US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, has been invisible.

If we hadn’t woken up to this fact before, we are now certainly seeing the bankruptcy of putting faith in authoritarian and dictatorial Arab leaders. The West sought influence in the region to secure oil and regional stability through the supply of military hardware and the implied threat of force against states branded as ‘rogue’ or ‘terrorist’. Lip-service only was paid to the need to help encourage the development of Arab civil society, democratic parties, freedom of expression and the rule of law. As this architecture appears to be in a state of collapse, there is no Plan B. There are no significant embryonic liberal-democratic groups in a position to fill the political vacuum. And this makes Obama’s Cairo speech of 4 June 2009, in which he pledged a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world, look rather hollow: nice sentiments, but lacking any new policy thinking to back it up.

It may still not be too late for the US and Europe to play a potentially historic role in encouraging the pro-democratic forces in the region. But if the US and Europe fail the millions of young people yearning for change in the Middle East, by not using their influence to empower rather than control them, the disaffection that may set in could have catastrophic consequences, not only in the region but inside America and countries in Europe. And as the global centre of gravity shifts to the Far East and the subcontinent in general, and to the BRIC countries in particular, the decline of Western political and economic power will become ever more apparent.

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