Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Obama Administration Has Become A Liability To Its Friends

By Raghida Dergham from New York
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 11/02/2011
The US Administration’s confused and erratic handling of the earth-shattering Youth Revolution in Egypt, in the wake of the surprise of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, has exposed its lack of a long-term perspective and clear thinking. This coincided with President Barack Obama and his administration’s belated realization of the “coup” carried out by Hezbollah against the Lebanese government –some called it a “hostile takeover” of power – which was quickly forgotten as a result of the massive events that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. Yesterday’s trance and today’s confused awakening have left the Obama Administration even more stumbling, crippled and weak in the eyes of the majority in the Arab region and perhaps the world. What caused even more gloating was that the administration seemed to be abandoning the principles of democracy and freedom it had professed one day and the next day seemed quick to abandon its ally – as usual. So far, the Obama Administration has not been able to make up its mind, as it called in the help of a “specialist” here and an “expert” there for advice on how to walk the tight rope, clinging to its primary objective, namely ensuring Barack Obama’s electoral march to a second term. It finds itself in a predicament, and its predicament is not exclusively due to its failure to anticipate the events in Egypt or its unsound policy towards Lebanon in its Syrian and Iranian dimensions. It rather includes Obama’s own pledge to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians- a pledge he was forced to retract under political and electoral pressures. What is required at this stage is a comprehensive reassessment of US policy towards the various countries of the Middle East –Arab countries as well as Iran and Israel, and perhaps Turkey too. What the US President should carefully consider at this stage is how to address the youth- not with rhetoric- but in the language of creating jobs, encouraging moderation, and participation in power. This will require an American revolution against the traditional American way of thinking about the Middle East, and about the Arabs in particular. Indeed, the reputation of the United States does not encourage one to trust it. The Obama Administration now seems as if borrowing ideas or means from the Bush Administration for electoral reasons or in order to correct past unsound methods of its own. It is sending mixed messages. It is confusing its friends and the ranks of moderation to such a degree that it has become a liability rather than a reliable partner that can be depended on. The Obama Administration seems to others to be naïve, as it stumbles among its contradictions, and this is why it must formulate a clear strategy that would resolve and manage the challenges it itself faces- not just those that prevail in the Middle East. It needs to return to the policy-drawing board in order to redesign American policy towards the region, starting with Egypt, Israel and Iran. Indeed, the events in Egypt could represent an opportunity for the Obama Administration, Israel and the Quartet on the Middle East to radically resolve the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflict, so as to enable the ranks of moderation and the Arab youth to prevent any attempt to hijack or subvert the youth uprising to the benefit of extremism. This should be done immediately whether through encouraging or imposing such resolution and a permanent settlement. Wagering on clarity of who will take control in Egypt is quite a dangerous bet. It would be better for the US to position itself, as quickly as possible, in a manner that would lead it to regain its prestige and its merit as the world’s sole superpower, and to exercise positive leadership rather than play haphazard roles where it chases after events in panic and walks in the steps that are designed by others. What is meant here is not at all an invitation to direct US interference in the spontaneous popular uprising in Egypt or in other Arab countries, but rather an invitation to closely examine the reasons behind continued suspicions and doubts over American aims and goals to try to remove at least some of them convincingly .

It will be said that the United States will always be blamed, no matter what it does, and that it will be considered a party to conspiracy, regardless of any steps it actually. This may be true, yet it does not negate the necessity of correcting policies and pursuing different tracks. There are today in the Arab region several points of view on what is the US policy towards the protesters in Egypt and towards President Hosni Mubarak. One point of view claims that the Obama Administration rushed to evade the crisis and abandon Mubarak, thereby strengthening its longstanding reputation of being untrustworthy and of using friends then discarding them when they have become useless or when they are weak – as usual. Some of those who are of this opinion believe that the United States abandons its allies after formulating alternative policies. In such a case, the alternative policy would be, according to them, to encourage Islamist political parties to attain power in several Arab countries, purposely. Why? Because surrounding Israel with Arab countries that have religious regimes would justify two of Israel’s goals: first the goal of turning Israel into a purely “Jewish state” devoid of non-Jews, with all that this would require in terms of policies, measures, forced expulsions and so forth; and second, surrounding Israel with what it considers Muslim extremism in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan- and perhaps Syria if necessary- would “free” Israel of the process of making peace and the pressure it entails. In fact, it would justify any measures it might need to take, either to fulfill its dream of turning Jordan into the “alternative homeland” for the Palestinians, or to carry out military operations through the Lebanese arena, where Hezbollah’s missiles are and where Iran sought to have its own military base.

The other point of view is based on the theory of making use of supporting the passion of the youth and promoting clinging to the principles of democracy and freedom of expression while the military apparatus in both countries discuss means of containing the uprising. Such means could include merely rehabilitating the role of the army so that it may retain control of the country following the political reform measures imposed by the youth revolution – which has so far led to doing away with plans of the Egyptian President handing down power to his son Gamal Mubarak, as well as aborting Hosni Mubarak’s run for President. Such means might also include taking stronger measures such as a military coup with all that it would require in terms of making use of military authority to take control of the country.

It is so far unclear whether the army will chose to be the Regime’s army or the State’s army. There is the scent of division of opinion and hesitancy among the ranks of the army, but it is not a scent of disintegration, sectarian division or loss of the ability to take control.

Clearly everyone agrees that Hosni Mubarak should leave, even Mubarak himself, who declared his desire to finish his term in September, so as to be the caretaker of the transitional process towards a new Egypt, with constitutional amendments and a respectable exit for him from power. The disagreement is over the timing, manner and conditions of leaving, and the army’s opinion in this respect is decisive.

The Youth Revolution is right to oppose Hosni Mubarak’s clinging to power and insistence on handing it down to his son, alongside the widespread corruption in the ranks close to power. The youth is right in demanding freedom, democracy, livelihood, job opportunities and the right to protest and express one’s opinion. Moreover, the Youth Revolution has been quite the opposite of what Iran’s leaders and Hezbollah have tried to portray as one basically echoing the Iranian revolution. Indeed, it has not carried the slogan of “enmity towards America” as they have, and has not positioned itself as calling for bringing down the peace treaty with Israel. In fact, there is resentment among the ranks of the protesters towards the statements made by both Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who tried to politicize the youth revolution in a way that had never occurred to those protesting.

Clearly there is confusion and incoherence among the ranks of the protesters, as there is also division over how to bid Hosni Mubarak farewell. Many admit that there is much he has given Egypt, and that, had it not been for the economic openness and reforms he introduced, he would not have exposed himself to becoming so fragile, and would have perhaps remained shielded by his rejection of reform, and therefore remained in power – just like others who have shielded themselves with refusing reform in order to prevent democracy.

For these reasons, it is not necessary for the youth revolution to make the exile Mubarak as the sole slogan of the revolution. Rather, it would be better for it if his leaving was just part of the revolution’s goals – not a goal in and of itself. There is therefore enough space for creative formulas that would allow Mubarak to gradually leave power, according to a fixed timetable, yet in effect before the end of his term in office, even if the date is in theory that of his term limit. There is dire need for a mechanism for the transition process, one that would be based on real, not symbolic, participation of opposition leaders – the youth among them in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood and other serious political parties.

And of course, the means are available to Hosni Mubarak to protect Egypt from slipping into a military confrontation between the army and the people, most importantly the means of listening. Indeed, the President has heard from Tahrir Square and from other cities that his people are ready to bid him farewell. He is better off making his departure from power a farewell for him, even if the people of Egypt end up divided between those who remember his achievements and those who only remember the corruption. Indeed, if he truly takes the initiative of launching a serious transition, it could change his path to leaving power from a humiliating exile to a farewell with some appreciation.

The Obama Administration has a role to play in such a conclusion, if it would only think strategically and use its influence with high-ranking leaders in the Egyptian army with whom it has deep relations. Nevertheless, Washington must not look like it is interfering either in a peaceful or armed military coup. There is talk of the possibility that the military institution contains the people’s revolution in order to adopt or appease it after which there would be regime- that is de facto guaranteed by the army- albeit with a broadened political system in which all political parties would participate A regime that would end political seclusion and open a new chapter of reform. Then the army would have opted to be the State’s army, not the regime’s army. If only it would!

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