The restrained response of the White House to the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation demonstrates the United States' new status in the Middle East. It is no longer a hegemonic power ready to intervene callously on behalf of any party that promotes its interests. Nor is it the lamp of liberty to which oppressed nations turn their gaze.
Demonstrators in Egypt knew, on their own, how to use Facebook and Twitter, and as the White House spokesman acknowledged, they were not waiting to learn from Americans the definition of freedom of speech.
Obama knows that leaders in the Arab world are angry with the way he responded to Mubarak's plight and that this is sure to come up in talks they hold with top U.S. officials in the coming weeks. For this reason, the U.S. president was wary about taking credit for what has happened in Egypt.
"I know that people think we have expressed too much support for one side or the other," Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, told reporters on Friday, as he went on to elaborate: "I think again, first and foremost, this was always about the people of Egypt. This always was going to be solved by the people of Egypt. No statement here, no comment that was made here, was going to, I think, bring the fundamental change that people were looking for in Egypt. . . . But again, I think we will continue to try to play a constructive role in helping this process along."
In a speech delivered on Friday, Obama congratulated the protestors and mentioned Mubarak's name just once. "There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place," he said. "This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same. By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people's hunger for change. But this is not the end of Egypt's transition. It's a beginning. I'm sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered." One key question is: With whom should the Americans be speaking right now? Obama asserted that the demonstrators have changed Egypt and the world at large. What he did not say is that Mubarak's withdrawal from Cairo after 30 years of rule has left the U.S. government with a power vacuum to deal with and created new dilemmas in his place.
For years, the United States cultivated a close relationship with Egypt's military. Among other things, it maintained an impressive crew of liaison officers in its Cairo embassy, and it funded a variety of professional advanced training courses for Egyptian army officers in the United States. The question now is how will the Egyptian army behave as the steward of democratization, at a time when new governmental institutions will have to be created virtually from scratch? Not knowing the answer to this question, the Obama administration is keeping Egyptian generals at arms length, fearing what progressive organizations have been predicting - a military coup - could come to pass. Another question that now troubles White House, State Department and Pentagon officials is whether the tides of revolution will end in Egypt, or whether they will wash over Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Algeria and Iran.
On Friday, the White House spokesman was reluctant to discuss such scenarios in the Middle East, saying laconically that the Obama administration is "holding discussions" with other countries in the region without elaborating on their contents. The spokesman was critical of Iran, apparently trying to sever any possible connection between recent events in Egypt and Iran's government, which has expressed support for the demonstrators in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt.
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