Egypt has Obama cautiously shifting world view on democracy

The bloody clashes in Cairo continued for a second day while Egypt's new vice president urged anti-government groups to "go back home."
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:00 AM

Shortly after taking office, President Obama traveled to Cairo to declare a new day in U.S. relations with the Muslim world - saying there was "no straight line" to building democratic societies in the Middle East.

The June 2009 address was in part intended to show a clean break from a George W. Bush-era "freedom agenda" of promoting electoral democracies across the region. Yet Obama now finds himself forced to move much closer to that world view as he escalates pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to make immediate changes.

Obama has shifted in that direction cautiously over the past week and a half, balancing between urging wider freedom and maintaining his position that the events are for Egyptians, not Americans, to decide. To some extent, that may be his only safe course: Obama does not yet know what kind of government will take shape in Egypt, and administration officials are confident that if it a hostile regime were to wind up taking hold, the president would inevitably take some of the blame.

And so the rhetoric has been circumspect. On Sunday, the administration called for an "orderly transition." By Tuesday, that had escalated into a demand that Mubarak begin implementing democratic changes immediately, but it was not clear what that meant, or exactly what the White House would like to see happen next. Although senior officials have made it plain that they want Mubarak to leave office right away, Obama has not said the same. He has left that to protesters in the streets of Cairo - and to some outspoken foreign policy hawks at home, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Obama has navigated some internal divides as well. In the Situation Room on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice - who has a history of urging pressure on authoritarian regimes - called for the administration to take a harder line on Mubarak, one administration official said. That view was met with some resistance from others, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama decided that, in his public remarks about Mubarak that night, he was "not going to go all the way, but not let him off the hook," one official said. In typical fashion, Obama shared his comments with his advisers ahead of time and allowed each side to weigh in.

"By the time everyone left, we all ended up agreeing on where we ended up," the official said.

So far, Obama's measured steps have drawn mostly praise across the political spectrum. Criticism has come largely from potential Republican presidential candidates. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said it is "frightening" to watch Obama on Egypt, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said the administration's response has been "inconsistent and bordering on incoherent."

But GOP leaders in the House and the Senate have expressed support, saying it is vital for the United States to speak with one voice on foreign policy. Even former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has been silent on the matter.

Still, Obama's approach has not eliminated the potential peril for him domestically. If an Islamist regime takes control, comparisons to Iran will be inevitable, with Republicans accusing Obama of not managing one of the most vital U.S. allies in the Middle East and potentially endangering the security of neighboring Israel.

At first, the president appeared reluctant to push Mubarak, an ally, but appeared to grow more comfortable urging changes as Mubarak appeared less flexible.

"Historians will write, if Egypt turns out well, that this was the capstone of a shift in the administration," said Robert Kagan, a Brookings Institution scholar who is part of a working group that is warning the White House to prepare for a change in Egypt.

Some leaders in the Jewish community expressed concern this week when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs urged Egypt to incorporate the views of opposition parties. They wondered if Gibbs was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. White House officials held a conference call Wednesday night to reassure Jewish leaders.

The administration is mindful of the potential drawbacks of becoming too closely involved in the internal upheaval of another country. The Bush administration pressured the Israeli government to allow elections to go forward in the Palestinian territories in January 2006 - then found itself in the uncomfortable position of leading a boycott of the elected Hamas government, embittering many Palestinians.

Egypt has elections scheduled for this fall, and without Mubarak on the ballot some fear the Muslim Brotherhood could gain political power. Such a victory would put Obama in a place similar to the one Bush found himself in after the 2006 Palestinian elections, and would challenge his pledge to allow Egyptians to determine their political future

"It's not that [Obama and his aides] have said, 'We want the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt,' " said Marc Lynch, an Egypt expert at George Washington University. "It's that if they respect democracy and reject violence, they should have as much a right to participate in elections as anyone else."

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company