Today, the Obama administration learned anew that there are limits to the United States' power of persuasion, just as there are limits to attempts to predict what an entrenched authoritarian leader might do.
When Frank Wisner, the former ambassador to Egypt and friend to its leaders, was tapped by the State Department to deliver a message to President Hosni Mubarak last week, President Obama wanted to convey something subtle. Dictators who have ruled with an iron first for decades were not likely to respond to conventional pressure, his aides believed. Short of violence, they would need some way to explain to themselves that yielding power was rational within the confines of their own mind.
This was why Wisner, both in his private comments to Mubarak and in his public remarks later, stressed that Mubarak had to be treated with dignity and that his place in history would be secured by an orderly transition to a new regime. The fact of what was happening--that people wanted him gone--would not be sufficient. So, Mubarak would give himself a reason to go.
This was why, in speech after speech, administration officials refused to call Mubarak a dictator, continued to praise his long-time friendship, emphasized that the decision was ultimately his own--and never explicitly told him that he must go. This was also why the administration encouraged Omar Suleiman, the new vice president, to write and begin to implement a transition plan of some sort, the first step of which would be the formal devolution of executive power and recognition of the dignity of the protesters. It was not only for the sake of the people, but it was also a way to encourage Mubarak to see that his self-interest would be served if he yielded power sooner, rather than later.
This morning--Washington time--word came from Mubarak’s inner circle that Mubarak had accepted his fate. The military accepted this on face value and began to execute what appeared to be a well-planned, highly public transition ritual. The Egyptian diplomatic corps began to tell their contacts in other countries. The American embassy in Cairo passed word directly to Obama through the National Security Staff and the State Department. This time, it seemed real. Obama allowed himself a rare moment of imprudence, predicting that the day ahead would be transformational and historic.
Then Mubarak changed his mind. Or maybe he intended to deceive the world. It is not unprecedented for a dictator to foment violence in order to be seen as heroic for stopping it. Obama watched his speech from the small cabin of Air Force One, hurried back to the White House, and met with his senior aides, no doubt angry and confused.
The White House, at this hour, is determined not to prejudge anything. Adding to the domestic political reality was the coincidence that the chief of the intelligence community and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency spent the day on Capitol Hill, reacting, it seems, to the same intelligence that everyone else was getting, confidently predicting that the tide had shifted and Mubarak would likely be gone. That just looked bad.
A four paragraph statement from Obama tonight opened with the obvious: “Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world,” Obama wrote. Note the threshold for credibility--it’s not what the United States thinks, it’s what the protesters want. It’s not about America. “The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete, and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.” It ended with a message of sympathy and friendship to the Egyptian people, one acknowledged that the United States’ interests coincided with their own, albeit so long as the protests remained “non-violent.”
Everyone only hopes; by nightfall in America, the media that predicted the imminent downfall of Mubarak were predicting an eruption of carnage tomorrow. Obama’s message warns the government not to launch a provocation: “Going forward, it will be essential that the universal rights of the Egyptian people be respected. There must be restraint by all parties. Violence must be forsaken. It is imperative that the government not respond to the aspirations of their people with repression or brutality. The voices of the Egyptian people must be heard.” But Obama does not even hint of consequences if they are not. Going forward, with so much unsettled and the calls of Irhal (“Go Away”) resounding through Cairo, the watchword from Washington is caution.