As strikes in Egypt have spread, violence has increased and demonstrators have widened their area of protest in Cairo right up to the parliament building, the White House responded to Egypt’s continuing problems by pressuring the Egyptian government to cancel the country’s 30-year-old emergency law – in the middle of a national emergency.
Continuing the White House’s almost constant interference in Egypt’s internal affairs, Vice President Joe Biden telephoned his Egyptian counterpart, Omar Suleiman, on Tuesday and asked him to lift the emergency law, one of the most important tools the Egyptian government possesses to prevent the country’s slide into chaos and a subsequent Muslim Brotherhood takeover.
“The government has not taken the necessary steps that the people of Egypt need to see. That’s why more and more people come out to register their grievances,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs as justification for Biden’s request, although negotiations between the government and opposition have just begun.
The Biden phone call occurred after a week of foreign policy stumbling, which saw a scrambling White House, surprised by the disturbances in Tunisia and Egypt, waffle in its position regarding Egypt’s political situation. When the disturbances first broke out in the most important and populous state in the Arab world, the White House at first backed the Egyptian government, believing it could control the situation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even called the Egyptian regime “stable.”
But on Monday last week, US envoy Frank Wiesner asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign, which Mubarak refused to do, since he rightly believed his resignation would lead to chaos. Then, on Tuesday, in another misstep; Obama personally phoned Mubarak and essentially told his Egyptian counterpart it was time to step aside. Mubarak once more declined to oblige, having just said in a speech to the nation he would step down in September. Mubarak’s refusal, however, prompted strong words the following day from Gibbs, who said: “Not September. Now means now.”
On the weekend, the White House, however, backtracked on its policy regarding Mubarak’s immediate removal. Clinton told journalists removing Mubarak too hastily would threaten the transition to democracy, while Wiesner, who had just asked Mubarak a few days earlier to step down, said at a conference in Munich: “President Mubarak’s role remains extremely critical in the days ahead.”
Shlomo Averni, a former Israeli diplomat, sums up the impression the Obama administration’s diplomatic confusion has made in a column he wrote that was excerpted in Asia Times:
Many in Israel have been shocked and dismayed by the inconsistency, bordering on amateurism, of the US response to events in Egypt. First the president, then Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, then again the president’s special envoy (Frank Wiesner) to Hosni Mubarak, have oscillated between distancing themselves from one of America’s staunchest allies and calling for him to step down, further calls for him to do it as soon as possible and then, taking a U-turn, endorsing an “orderly transition” headed by Omar Suleiman, his intelligence chief.
The Biden phone call represents another zag in the White House’s constantly shifting policy position. It indicates the administration has returned to its position of a quick transition, which probably also involves Mubarak’s leaving, or at least his removal from the levers of power, since he is the one most closely identified with this law. But besides the additional turmoil the law’s removal would bring to the already boiling Egyptian streets by lessening the security forces’ authority, it is astonishing the White house has not taken into consideration the other negative effects its lifting would have.
If Biden’s suggestion were heeded, the most dangerous consequence would involve the hundreds of religious extremists that were locked up in Egyptian prisons under the emergency law. Its cancellation would mean they would probably have to be released, which would only add gas to the Egyptian fire, possibly even ignite a terrorism campaign.
Al Qadea recognises the great, destabilising influence these prisoners would have on Egypt’s already volatile situation and places a high value in getting them out of jail. Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate has expressed this priority by calling for attacks on Egyptian prisons to release their comrades. Egyptian prisons have already been stormed and, after heavy gun battles, dozens of religious extremists escaped. Al Qadea’s Iraqi branch has also called for the Egyptian protesters to wage jihad, the first such call by the terrorist organization.
Just as dangerous, the lifting of the emergency law would see a curtailment of the powers of the intelligence agencies that were responsible for putting the religious extremists in prison in the first place. Since these intelligence agencies are the Islamists’ true enemies in Egypt, the extremists would like nothing better than to see them weakened, so they can go about their sinister work of taking over the country. If Egypt is to experience a peaceful transition to a post-Mubarak government, it is essential that these intelligence agencies remain in place with their current powers intact.
To its credit, the Egyptian government did not acquiesce to Biden’s request to cancel the emergency law. Unlike the White House, it is familiar with Egyptian society and culture and is well aware of the danger this action would involve. Such a retreat would represent weakness to the regime’s opponents and lead to many other demands, which would precipitate a descent into chaos. One does not have to look any further than Pakistan and Somalia to realise Islamists thrive in chaotic societies. Egypt would be no different. The Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings to take over. And it is not the non-violent, democracy-respecting, purely religious organization leftist and liberal media outlets are portraying it to be.
Biden’s misplaced phone call not only reveals the extent the Obama administration has turned its back on Egypt’s government, but it is showing the world it does not pay to be a long-time ally of America. In the New York Times, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is quoted as saying the Egyptian crisis has caused America’s other allies to question “what sort of longevity there is to the notion of alliances.” Since coming into office in 2009, Obama has treated Israel shabbily and betrayed America’s allies in Eastern Europe in favour of Russia over the installation of an anti-nuclear deterrent. And in an unprecedented act of betrayal, it has recently been learned, Obama told the Russians the size of the British nuclear arsenal in exchange for their signature on the START treaty.
Interestingly, besides Israel, a New York Times story reveals it is America’s other Arab allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, who, also fearing instability, are asking Obama to go slow during the transition period in Egypt and “not to cut loose …Hosni Mubarak, too hastily, or throw its weight behind the democracy movement in a way that could further destabilize the region.” The Times story says “few voices have been as urgent, insistent or persuasive” as these. Since stability in Egypt is essential to regional peace, one can only hope the White House will listen to these voices from the Muslim world, since it appears to be deaf to all others.