The Obama administration is to hold a rare Saturday principals meeting to determine its response to Egypt’s anti-government uprising.
The administration has already decided to review its aid policy toward Egypt in response to the current turmoil.
“We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events now and in the coming days.” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
The announcement seems calculated to influence the calculations of President Hosni Mubarak (above) and, more significantly, the country’s military which has reportedly taken control of key locations across Cairo, including the state TV station.
Egypt received $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance in the 2010 fiscal year.
The administration was reminded of its leverage today when Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) urged President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to press Cairo to lift its “digital iron curtain” on the Internet and defend Egyptians’ rights to free expression and assembly.
“The Egyptian Government has long received military supplies and assistance from the United States, which creates another level of concern,” said Leahy, “as we watch what seem to be the largely peaceful protests in that country. United States laws specifically prescribe the uses of such assistance.”
International TV channels have broadcast footage of protesters holding up discharged tear gas canisters, marked “Made in the USA.”
The outcome of the current crisis will in large part hinge on the military. Protesters called for and welcomed the army’s intervention on the streets today, but it still remains to be seen whether and how it tries to quell the unrest.
“Some soldiers won’t fire on the Egyptian people, but others are too scared to disobey orders. You have no idea what rebelling in the army can mean for you,” one conscript told The Guardian.
But, he continued: “I am supposed to be on the 7am train to my barracks, but we are witnessing the final hours of Mubarak and his regime.”
The opposition Wafd party today called for a period of transitional rule, new parliamentary elections and constitutional amendments to limit presidents to only two six-year terms.
The current turmoil not only kills the myth of Arab exceptionalism, it also raising questions about the Obama administration’s decision to jettison its predecessor’s commitment to promoting Arab democracy and pursue a policy of engaging the region’s regimes.
“’Engagement’ has not been the problem, but rather the administration’s insistence on engaging with regimes rather than with the people trying to survive under them,” writes Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, and formerly deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.
He invokes Bush’s 2003 speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, in which he insisted that “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
Yet the Obama administration’s strategic shift failed to promote reform in part because of the conviction of Arab rulers like Mubarak that Bush’s Freedom Agenda had provoked instability and threatened to usher in radical Islamist rule.
“We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world,” said US diplomats in a cable prior to Mubarak’s visit to Washington in May 2009.
“He can harken back to the Shah of Iran: the U.S. encouraged him to accept reforms, only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists,” the cable continued. “Wherever he has seen these U.S. efforts, he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that ensued.”
Washington should press the case of jailed former opposition Ayman Nour, wrote US ambassador Margaret Scobey, in a February 9, 2009, memorandum, but not directly with Mubarak.
“Mubarak takes this issue personally, and it makes him seethe when we raise it, particularly in public,” she wrote, noting that the regime “remains skeptical of our role in democracy promotion, arguing that any efforts to open up will result in empowering the Muslim Brotherhood,” she wrote.
But Mubarak’s notorious recalcitrance may prove to be his downfall.
“Being stubborn is being foolish,” says Osama al-Ghazali Harb. “This is a political revolt, and it will go on.”
The current unrest provides an opportunity for the administration to adopt a more forceful approach, according to the bipartisan Egypt working group of analysts and former officials.
“We urge the administration to press the Mubarak government to lift the state of emergency that restricts freedom of assembly and to end police brutality and torture,” the group said. “The administration should also press for constitutional and administrative changes necessary for a free and competitive presidential election open to candidates without restrictions, supervised by judges and monitored by domestic and international observers.”