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.