The Obama administration started this crisis well behind popular sentiment in Egypt, waxing supportive of President Hosni Mubarak in the early days of the uprising (Vice President Joe Biden even declared that Mubarak shouldn’t resign). Then the administration caught up with events briefly when President Obama urged Mubarak to step down on Tuesday.
But at the moment, the Obama team appears to have lost control again, with Mubarak acting in open defiance of the Americans and hewing stubbornly to his own timetable for departure, not the U.S. president’s.
And things are developing so fast that it may well be that Washington won’t be able to catch up this time.
In the last day Mubarak appears to have decided that he no longer has friends in high places in Washington. According to Mideast experts who are familiar with the instructions given to U.S. envoy Frank Wisner, Mubarak simply refused to consider Obama’s demand that he leave power now or soon.
“The message was very plain: ‘It’s time for you to go,’ ” said one expert who has been consulted by the administration but would discuss internal deliberations only on condition of anonymity. “Mubarak either didn’t listen or he said, ‘I’ll do it my way.’ ”
That became increasingly clear on Wednesday, when violent pro-Mubarak groups that may have included plainclothes police officers assailed the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. While it was not clear whether these groups were incited or paid by the government, many observers on the ground interpreted it that way.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs quickly signaled U.S. displeasure, saying, “The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators. We repeat our strong call for restraint.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was plainer in suggesting the culprit behind Wednesday's violence was Mubarak. "The use of violence to intimidate the Egyptian people must stop," he said.
But that restraint was not quick in coming. Longtime Mideast observers say it’s likely that Mubarak is playing on deep-seated fears of chaos and instability—fears that he has long made the mainstay of his justification for holding onto power for three decades.
“At some point people need to go back to work,” said a U.S. official who analyzes the region.
But Mubarak is playing with political fire himself, especially as the Egyptian military from which he sprang (along with Egypt’s two previous rulers, Anwar al Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser) is pressed by several sides—both the demonstrators and the U.S. government—to restore order. “Mubarak is putting the military in an impossible position,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
If the violence continues, the military may be forced to resort to a time-honored solution: a coup.
This article appears in the February 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.