In what will surely rank as one of the least necessary travel alerts in State Department history, a warning indeed was issued today, advising Americans to reconsider vacation plans in Egypt as a popular uprising in a number of ancient metropolises taunts a massive clampdown from Egypt’s aged strongman Hosni Mubarak. One presumes Tunis, Amman, Ramallah and Sana'a in Yemen are also on the warning list this week as the Arab world continues to convulse. What to add next to the honor roll? Riyadh? Not likely, according to one of Saudi Arabia’s gazillion princes.
In Davos, for the World Economic Forum Prince Turki al Faisal was asked if the Arab world feels more threatened by the prospect of Iran with a nuclear bomb or by its own people armed with democracy. Prince Turki replied, “I don’t know. We don’t have a nuclear weapon. And we don’t have democracy.”
U.S. political figures could learn something from this Turki as Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs struggled to define the Obama’s administration’s attitude toward this inconvenient outburst of democratic aspirations in the Arab world while parsing a U.S. diplomatic legacy in the region that was much more at home, all rhetoric aside, with the corruption-ridden autocracies of a Mubarak or the unlamented President-in-Flight of Tunisia Ben Ali. Foreign Policy was kind enough to round up a collection of recent statements for those keeping score at home.
Clinton and Gibbs were still suggesting yesterday that the Mubarak regime was stable and that somehow the situation could resolve itself if the regime could dialogue with street protestors about reforms—statements that seemed remarkably out of touch with reality as average Egyptians were in the street screaming for the flat-out ouster of the clan Mubarak and Egyptian army patrols began preparations for taking back the streets, whatever that might entail. However this is going to end, with Mubarak stuffing Krugerrands into a duty-free bag or on his way to the eventual crowning of second son Gamal as the once and future Mubarak-in-chief, this popular uprising in Cairo does not look like it is going to end peacefully.
Just three days ago, Secretary Clinton said: “We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence. But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
Meanwhile last night on PBS Newshour Vice President Joe Biden was helpfully explaining why our man Hosni was not a dictator: "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with -- with Israel.… I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
Newshour host Jim Lehrer asked pointblank if the time has come for Mubarak to go. Biden said: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that—to be more responsive to some… of the needs of the people out there."
Sorry but my watch is running on Cairo time, and it’s saying it’s half-past time for him to go.
Today the message is a little cagier, with Gibbs calling for calm on all sides and revealing that the U.S. might be willing to review the nation’s annual billion dollar aid package to Egypt, let none dare call it hush money, if the government response gets much uglier and Secretary Clinton likewise seeming to toughen the U.S. position, chasing, but not quite getting ahead of the events on the ground and the growing ambitions and aspirations of protestors for human rights, democracy and reform in Egypt. She said in a prepared statement:
We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protestors, and we call on the Egyptian Government to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces. At the same time, protestors should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully.
As we have repeatedly said, we support the universal human rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of expression, of association and of assembly. We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications. These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian Government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.
As President Obama said yesterday, reform is absolutely critical to the well being of Egypt. Egypt has long been an important partner of the United States on a range of regional issues. As a partner, we strongly believe that the Egyptian Government needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political, and social reforms.
I feel sorry for Obama and his administration as it stumbles through decades of hypocrisy regarding the political leadership in the Arab world and America’s presumed preference for democracy and human rights. A succession of U.S. executives have stood by Mubarak and regional despots and kleptocrats with limp calls for reforms for years. Somehow nobody thought a time might come when the Arab public itself might have had enough? Problem is democracy is messy, especially so over there. When we see it in practice; we may not like it. Just ask Hamas.
Obama and his crew seem uncharacteristically out of step and uncertain. Maybe they should spend less time hunkered down with their Arab specialists and confidantes in Israel and more time checking their twitter feeds. Any teenager in Cairo and Alexandria could tell them what time it is.