Obama administration studies recent revolutions for lessons applicable in Egypt

Ruling council says it will run the country for six months or until elections are held; tensions flare as military evicts protesters in Tahrir Square.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 7:00 PM

As the Obama administration works to shepherd the Egypt uprising toward a democratic government, it is drawing on the experiences of a half-dozen other nations whose revolutions have been the focus of internal White House study in recent weeks.

National security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, at President Obama's behest, has ordered some of his senior directors, some responsible for areas outside the Middle East, to review recent popular uprisings that have toppled governments, searching for lessons applicable in Egypt. A White House official said a six-inch-thick file now sits on Donilon's desk.

Among those working on what amounts to a comparative revolutions course is Michael A. McFaul, the National Security Council director for Russia and Eurasian affairs, who as a professor at Stanford University also served as director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

The White House focus has been on revolutions against U.S.-backed dictatorships, including the 1986 popular revolt against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the Chilean transition from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to democracy in 1990, and the 1998 uprising in Indonesia that drove out President Suharto. Officials have also looked to Serbia and Poland for lessons.

"We are closely studying all of these cases," said a senior administration official, who is involved in the effort and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it. "There are no tight analogies for what has happened in Egypt, and there are many paths to successful democracies."

The Indonesia case has particularly resonance for Obama, who spent part of his childhood in the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation and who, in a November speech in Jakarta, celebrated its transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Since the demonstrations began in the Egyptian capital, Obama administration officials have brought in several experts on the Indonesian revolt, which the White House has held up as a counterargument to conservative criticism that an Iranian-style Islamic republic could emerge in the heart of the Arab Middle East.

White House officials have talked with Stanford University's Larry Diamond, who studies democratic transitions; Duke University's Donald L. Horowitz, who circulated the first chapter of his soon-to-be published book on Indonesia; and Cornell University's Valerie Bunce, who wrote a summary of the Indonesian case, as well as the 1989 Polish and 2000 Serbian transitions, that was distributed to senior staff members working on Egypt.

Early in the Egyptian uprising, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, also reached out to Karen Brooks, the National Security Council's director for Asia under George W. Bush who, as a State Department official, advised President Bill Clinton during the Indonesian revolt.

Brooks said Rhodes told her that although some fear that Egypt could turn into post-revolution Iran, he saw as many similarities to the Indonesian experience. In the following days, she prepared papers for Rhodes that broadly compared the uprisings in Egypt and Indonesia, examining their militaries and bearing down on the traditions of each country's Islamist political movements.

"We looked at various slices of the issue to get some baseline assessments," said Brooks, who serves as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and runs a consulting firm. "And then we moved onto the lessons learned - what did the United States do well, and what didn't it do well? And what did Indonesia do well to get where it is?"

Although Brooks acknowledged many differences in the cases, she also noted that Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, like Suharto, came to power from the military at a time of national crisis and with the active support of the United States.

"There's a million different ways these things unfold, and there's no crystal ball," Brooks said. "The good news at the end of the day is that there are alternative outcomes, and that Egypt need not look like Iran, although I'm not saying it won't."

"There are ways that that outcome becomes more likely and ways it becomes less likely," she continued. "And that's what has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks."

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