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Obama administration ignored clear warnings on Egypt

By Jackson Diehl
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; A19

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.

When the election was, indeed, a travesty from which international monitors were excluded, the administration reacted with mild statements by low-level officials while affirming its support for Mubarak. On background, administration briefers told journalists that it was "unrealistic" to expect Mubarak to hold a democratic election.

Since the current crisis erupted, the working group has urged the administration to state explicitly that "Mubarak has no place in a process leading to meaningful political change" and to "suspend all economic and military assistance to Egypt until the government accepts" genuine democratic reforms, including lifting the state of emergency, releasing political prisoners and inviting in international monitors to oversee the process leading to elections.

Last week it looked as if Obama might follow the group's advice: He said a transition to democracy "must begin now" and hinted that Mubarak should step down. But over the weekend the State Department's stability-at-all-costs doctrine was reasserted. Clinton endorsed "the transition process announced by the Egyptian government."

Given how often the working group has been right when the administration has been wrong, the open letters it issued Monday deserve attention:

"The process that is unfolding now has many of the attributes of a smokescreen. Without significant changes, it will lead to preservation of the current regime in all but name and ensure radicalization and instability in the future. . . ."

"You [Obama] have indicated that the transition must begin 'now' . . . For those words to have meaning, your administration must commit itself to full democracy in Egypt. That can only be brought about with the participation of all of the democratic opposition and the unmistakable departure of Hosni Mubarak from the scene."

Will the administration listen? Given its record, the odds don't seem good.

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