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Fast change or smooth transition, that's the question

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2011-02-03

When it comes to Egypt, the US sets the pace of the international reactions to the world’s largest Arab nation. So when Washington issues mixed messages on a fast-changing situation, the international community is caught in the lag.

Barely 20 months ago, US President Barack Obama chose the Egyptian capital of Cairo to deliver his famous “New Beginning” speech to the Muslim world. When Egyptian activists took up his call last month, demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the US president was criticised for his “orderly transition” discourse. Then, shortly after Mubarak announced he would finish his term in September but not seek another, Obama declared that change must come “now”.

On Wednesday night, as a horrified world watched Cairo’s Tahrir Square turn into a war zone, the pace of Washington’s calls for change accelerated with the Obama administration pressing Mubarak to move "farther and faster" on handing over power. "Now means now," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a press briefing in Washington.

An orderly transition or fast change: that’s the mixed message Washington has relayed as the Obama administration struggles to keep up with the fast-changing events in the world’s largest Arab nation and second-largest recipient of US aid.

When it comes to Egypt, Washington sets a pace that Europe quickly adopts.

A day after Obama’s call for a change “now,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that change must commence “without delay”. British Prime Minister David Cameron added that work towards forming a new Egyptian government must be “rapid and credible, and it needs to start now”. The EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton insisted that Mubarak address the transition "as quickly as possible".

The response from Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim nation and NATO member, was even starker: "The (Egyptian) people expect a very different decision from Mubarak," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan following Mubarak’s offer to step down in September.

"The current administration does not inspire trust so far as the democratic change wanted by the population is concerned," Erdogan said.

Talking to and between military and intelligence heads

Following Wednesday’s clashes on Tahrir Square, Washington called on Mubarak to take concrete steps towards holding democratic elections.

But White House spokesman Gibbs pointedly sidestepped questions about whether the Obama administration could accept Mubarak staying until a September election, saying he would not discuss details of Obama's talks with Mubarak.

For the moment, Washington appears to be focusing on Egypt’s powerful military. As pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators on Tahrir Square faced off Wednesday night, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Egypt's newly named vice president, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and urged Egypt to investigate who was behind the violence and hold them accountable.

US Defense Secretary Roberts Gates also had a telephone conversation with his Egyptian counterpart, according to a Pentagon spokesman. But few details of that conversation were released.

Change is coming, coming… yet who’s prepared?

The upheaval in Egypt, though rapid and surprising, is not unprecedented.

On January 14, when Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia following a popular uprising, Middle East analysts were publicly discussing the possibility of a “Tunisian effect” rippling through the Arab world.

The prospect looked increasingly likely as a wave of copycat suicide attempts spread through the region – with young men and women seeking to emulate a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation that led to Ben Ali’s exit.

But even as Mubarak’s grip on power became exceedingly tenuous and Egyptian opposition calls for a robust Washington response got increasingly desperate, the Obama administration struggled to come out with a coherent message.

The perennial superpower dilemma

In an interview with the Reuters news service, Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration had been caught "a little flat-footed" by the events in Egypt.

But Alterman also noted that when it comes to foreign policy, the US faces the perennial superpower dilemma: to act and be seen as a bully interfering with the world or to not act and be accused of indifference.

"It's dangerous to be ahead of the curve, especially when you're talking about a country that you have a very important relationship with,” said Alterman.

In a familiar turn of events, Egyptian officials – on and off the record – have been referring darkly to “foreign” or “outside” interference in recent days.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement rejected foreign calls for a rapid democratic transition, saying they were "aimed to incite the internal situation”.

In the world of diplomacy, the statement was an eyebrow-raising turnaround from the United States’s largest Arab aid recipient.

From the Egyptian government’s point of view, the sudden shift from America’s trusted Arab ally to a dangerously destabilising regime in the Middle East is a bitter pill to swallow. And it’s one that came without an early prescription or user warning.

Date created : 2011-02-03


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