Obama administration ignored clear warnings on Egypt

Anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday.
Anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday. (Linda Davidson)
By Jackson Diehl
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Caught totally unprepared for Egypt's uprising, the Obama administration has offered a series of excuses. It was, officials claim, quietly supporting reform all along. The CIA never warned that Egypt might blow up. No one could have anticipated what has happened in Cairo since Jan. 25.

The claim on reform is easily dismissed. Anyone who has been following Egypt for the past two years knows the administration's record of coddling President Hosni Mubarak, cutting funds for Egyptian democracy programs and eschewing criticism of the regime's repression.

But another part of the record also needs clearing up: The White House was warned, publicly and repeatedly, that Egypt was approaching a turning point and that the status quo was untenable - not by an intelligence agency but by a bipartisan group of Washington-based experts who pleaded, in vain, for a change of policy.

The Working Group on Egypt was formed a year ago to sound the alarm about Mubarak's crumbling regime. The first sentence of its opening statement: "Egypt is at a critical turning point." The group is still issuing detailed proposals about how to handle the crisis. On Monday, it warned that the administration "may acquiesce to an inadequate and possibly fraudulent transition process in Egypt." Sadly, the administration is still not listening.

The group draws on considerably more expertise on Egypt than exists within the White House, which until Jan. 25 had only one staffer dedicated to North Africa. The panel's chairs are Michele Dunne, a former White House and State Department official now working at the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reform Project, and Robert Kagan, a foreign policy expert based at the Brookings Institution (and a monthly columnist for The Post). Members run the gamut of the political spectrum and include Tom Malinowksi and Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch; former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams; Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress; Neil Hicks of Human Rights First; Ellen Bork of the Foreign Policy Initiative; and Scott Carpenter of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The group first wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 7, 2010, saying that Egypt "faces substantial leadership changes in the near future without a fair and transparent political process" and that "if the opportunity for reform is missed, prospects for stability and prosperity in Egypt will be in doubt."

The letter attacked the administration's mind-set: "The choice is not between a stable and predictable but undemocratic Egypt on the one hand, and dangerous instability and extremism on the other. There is now an opportunity to support gradual, responsible democratic reform. But the longer the United States and the world wait to support democratic institutions and responsible political change in Egypt, the longer the public voice will be stifled and the harder it will be to reverse a dangerous trend."

This came 10 months ago. But the advice had no effect: When Mubarak renewed Egypt's hated emergency law in May, the White House and State Department reacted mildly. So the group wrote again to Clinton on May 11:

"We strongly encourage you to act quickly and effectively. . . . [T]he administration's practice of quiet diplomacy is not bearing fruit. As a major aid contributor to and strategic partner of Egypt, the United States is uniquely positioned to engage the Egyptian government and civil society and encourage them along a path toward reform. The time to use that leverage is now."

No response. In June, a frustrated Dunne and Kagan warned in an op-ed in The Post:

"The Obama administration, in pursuit of an illusory stability, stands mute and passive as the predictable train wreck draws nearer . . . it is repeating the mistake that Cold War-era administrations made when they supported right-wing dictatorships - right up until the point when they were toppled by radical forces."

The group did not only make public statesments; it met with State Department and White House officials. In a November meeting that included Dennis Ross, one of Obama's top advisers on the Middle East, it urged a vigorous reaction if, as expected, Mubarak rigged an upcoming election for parliament.

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