Mubarak & Obama- AP - Sept. 1, 2010
In a Sept. 1, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Photo by AP
Text size

After U.S. President Barack Obama delivered the White House's message calling on Egypt to transition peacefully into a democratic regime immediately, he found himself in an awkward position.

Prior to delivering this clear criticism regarding the insufficiency of Mubarak's announcement that he would retire only at election time, Obama's administration had cautiously navigated the crisis in Egypt. But this caution was cast to the wind this week with Washington's blatant revocation of its endorsement of Mubarak.

Obama expressed that his administration was committed to a transition in Egypt and that Mubarak had failed to deliver a concrete response that would defuse the tensions. Mubarak's vow not to run for reelection has been speculated as a bluff, further diminishing the likelihood of a democratic outcome to Egypt's current anarchic reality.

Mubarak's procrastination in finding a viable solution even at the interim not only increases the risk of an escalation into further violence, it also ups the pressure on Obama to take more aggressive steps. The option of cutting U.S. aid to Egypt is likely only to backfire.

“I think that the Obama administration is really struggling to keep up with the events themselves,” Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

“Obama and U.S. foreign policy are between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, to sort of pull out the rug from under Mubarak doesn't say much for our long-term relations with this guy; on the other hand, we have already been caught on the wrong side of history. The equivocation out of Washington is interpreted very clearly on the streets of Cairo as siding with the government," said Coleman.

“What you're seeing really right now is a bit of a power vacuum among the opposition that makes the unknown all that much more worrying," Coleman added, "I think that the U.S. would be making a terrible mistake if it thought it could pick a candidate. We saw how well that worked in Iraq. And I think it would be even less successful in the Egypt context”.

The U.S. administration has been exceedingly careful in its comments about the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, although the U.S. has contacted several opposition figures, the administration has made a point of avoiding dialogue with the Islamic group.

“They [the Muslim Brotherhood] are a fact of life in Egypt. They are highly organized," State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley said, while stressing the importance of commitment to nonviolence and the democratic process.

"We're not picking candidates," Crowley added. "We're not picking favorites. Whoever wants to play this kind of role in Egypt's future should have that opportunity.”

Apparently, Crowley's sentiments are not universally shared in the American political strata. Mark Kirk, the Republican Senator from Illinois, wrote in a letter to President Obama that the U.S. risks “converting Egypt into a state-sponsor of terror”.

“While we support human rights and democracy, we must heed growing warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood, their leaders and plans for taking Egypt back to the 13th century,” Senator Kirk wrote. “We have seen this movie before – in Iran, in Lebanon and in Gaza. To prevent a strategic reversal on the scale of what happened in Iran, the United States and her allies should do all it can to support Egypt’s army and secular leaders, ensuring no future for the Muslim Brotherhood."