Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s surprising declaration that he will retain power—at least nominally—represents a worst-case scenario for the Obama administration, which faces the prospect of either escalating a showdown with one of its most important regional allies or sitting by as the Mubarak regime takes potentially violent steps to preserve its rule.
In the hours before Mubarak’s Thursday night address, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians crowded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square expecting to hear a resignation speech from the embattled strongman. Thousands of miles away in Washington, administration officials made clear in interviews that they were privately thrilled by the indications that Mubarak was preparing to peacefully resign his position.
But Mubarak’s defiant and often confusing late-night speech dashed both sets of hopes. In Egypt, thousands of furious protesters began streaming to Mubarak’s presidential palace, which is guarded by an elite unit of the Egyptian military. In Washington, the administration spent Thursday night trying to get a clearer sense of precisely what powers Mubarak had agreed to cede to his hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman, and what role the longtime Egyptian leader envisioned playing in the weeks ahead. The Egyptian ambassador to Washington told CNN that Suleiman was now Egypt’s “de facto president,” but a senior administration official cautioned late Thursday night that key details of Mubarak’s transfer of authority remained murky.
Mubarak’s refusal to step down left Egypt more unsettled than at any point since the country’s political crisis began late last month, and many observers said they expected new clashes between disappointed pro-democracy protesters and the regime’s security forces. On Twitter, Nobel laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei warned that “Egypt will explode. [The] Army must save the country now.”
The White House, meanwhile, finds itself now confronting an increasingly recalcitrant regime which has publicly rejected several of its key demands—most notably for the immediate lifting of Egypt’s hated emergency laws—and seems almost certain to take a harder line toward the pro-democracy protesters in the days ahead. In a not-so-veiled shot at the United States, Mubarak pointedly said Thursday night that he would never accept “foreign dictations, whatever the source might be.”
President Obama, for his part, fired back in an unusually harsh written statement a few hours after Mubarak’s speech.
“The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful, or sufficient,” Obama said. “The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete, and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.”
The escalating war of words between the two allies threatens to seriously degrade one of Washington’s most important bilateral relationships. Successive American administrations have viewed Egypt as the most important American ally in the Arab world because of its hard-line on Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to serve as an interlocutor between Israel and the Palestinians.
But the current unrest is pushing the two governments further and further apart. Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden called Suleiman with a specific set of American demands: get rid of the 30-year-old emergency laws, which allow the government to detain political opponents without charges; stop harassing or assaulting journalists and protesters; develop a specific and detailed timetable for opening up Egypt’s calcified political system; and holding talks with a broader swath of Egypt’s opposition movement. Obama repeated all of those demands in his statement on Thursday night.
The Mubarak regime shows no signs of agreeing to any of the American demands, however. In his speech, Mubarak said he would amend Egypt’s constitution to pave the way for eventually lifting the emergency laws, but provided no sense of how long that process would take. Suleiman, in his own address last night, said “the door is still open for more dialogue,” but also ominously warned that he would protect the country from “dangers of chaos.”
"I call upon the young people and heroes of Egypt, go back to your houses, go back to your work,” Suleiman said.
In a barely veiled shot at the Arab news channel al Jazeera, whose reporters have been beaten and harassed throughout Cairo despite Biden’s pleas, Suleiman urged Egyptians to avoid listening to “satellite stations that have no objective but to sew sedition among people and to weaken Egypt and to mar its image.”
The rift between the two nominal allies poses a range of tough policy choices for the administration. The U.S. has some leverage because of the $1.3 billion per year in aid that it provides to Cairo, but cutting the funding could do lasting damage to America’s relationship with Egypt. And it will be difficult for Washington to funnel support to Egypt’s pro-democracy protesters, who lack clear leadership and aren’t part of a cohesive movement.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said that was a key difference between the current situation in Egypt and the waning years of the Cold War, when the U.S. was able to provide aid to well-organized opposition groups like Poland’s Solidarity movement.
“The trouble in Egypt is that we have an amorphous mass that’s rebelling against the dictatorship. Our sympathies are with them,” he said. “But how do we translate that into a democratic takeover?”