February 12, 2011

Obama and the Egyptian Dilemma

By Seyyed Mohammad Sadegh Kharrazi.


Middle East is at the boiling point these days. Deep-seated dissatisfaction of the masses is not only about bread, but also breath: the one-party, one lifetime president formula is not bearable for Arab citizens anymore; they want to take the matter in their own hand. The words of a young Egyptian citizen who expressed his anger over the rule of only one president during his lifetime were quite painful.

Amid the turmoil in Arab countries, the old question comes back: while these popular movements have taken place in countries whose leaders enjoyed close ties with Washington, why is the United States –a self-proclaimed advocate of democracy- kept silent about blatant violation of human rights? Why has it never uttered a word of objection against lifetime presidency of its allies? Middle East already knows the answer: in the eyes of every president in the White House, citizens’ right to determine their own destiny is worth defense if and only if it is in compliance with US’ critical interests; otherwise it’s an extraneous issue (unless the situation becomes so tragic that Washington senses the need to take a lukewarm critical stance.)

As Stephen Kinzer has correctly noted, “US foreign policy is stuck in a cold war mindset of imperial dominance”, a mindset in which containment of the Soviet Union and strategic alliance with Tel Aviv were two immutable tenets. With USSR’s dissolution and collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Iran replaced Moscow in the US’ zero-sum diplomatic game. Israel, nonetheless, remained the main beneficiary of Washington’s strategy.

It is common knowledge that Washington views Egypt, Jordan and some Persian Gulf Arab states –the Islamic Republic of Iran’s bitter foes- as its valuable assets in the Middle East and obstructs any radical changes in these countries as much as possible. Since the inception of popular uprising in Tunisia, the US administration has shown vague support for the Tunisian citizens’ democratic demands and called Ben Ali a dictator only after he fled the country. In Egypt’s political crisis, Joseph Biden started with rejecting claims that Mubarak was a dictator before Obama and Hillary Clinton felt the urge to support the demonstrators’ demands. And it was only after unprecedented violence of the Egyptian security forces that the US president called for transition towards democracy in Egypt. The following are the basic causes of the US administration’s refusal to chide Mubarak:

1. Washington’s Middle East policy revolves around full support and security for Israel. The pro-Israel lobby in the United States is strong enough to dissuade any US government from taking a non-preferential attitude towards this country. Every Democrat or Republican president in the White House must show commitment to maintaining Israel’s superior military position to its Arab neighbors. Tel Aviv receives the largest annual batch of military aid from the United States. Considering the warm relations of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman with Israeli officials, and the strategic importance of Mubarak’s regime for Tel Aviv, the US government cannot ignore Israel’s security concerns and acknowledge a new political regime whose ties to Israel would be a matter of doubt. Since the eruption of crisis in Egypt, Israeli officials have openly expressed their concern over the post-Mubarak state of Egypt. Senior US officials clung to halfhearted comments and refused to single out Mubarak.

2. As the 2012 US presidential elections are approaching, Obama’s every single major will have implications for his presidential campaign. The pro-Israel lobby and Republicans will avenge on Obama with any move that encourages or facilitates the fall of Mubarak’s regime and instigates political chaos in Cairo. Obama will try not to be caught in Egypt’s trap which could bring him accusations of overthrowing an Israel-friendly state (which is fairly a rare breed in the Middle East).

3. Leaving Mubarak high and dry and without any contingency plans will resent other US’ allies in the region. Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution of Iran, regional states have not yet forgotten how Jimmy Carter dealt with the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi. This is a point Obama will consider in interaction with his country’s Middle East allies.

4. In its latest masterstroke, Hezbollah ‘appointed’ a new, pro-Resistance figure, Najib Mikati, to premiership in Lebanon (indeed a blow to US’s and Israel’s interests in Lebanon). Ben Ali has fled Tunisia and Egypt is in turmoil. Washington is enduring one of its most difficult days in the Middle East. The prospect of Islamists gaining power in Egypt and other regional countries is not only distressful for Tel Aviv, but also renders Washington further prone to attacks.

Obama is now facing a dilemma, realpolitik versus his rosy election slogans of human rights and democracy for the world. American diplomats are thinking of how to negotiating the balance between strategic concerns and human rights these days. Washington may pressure Mubarak in the event of unrelenting popular demonstrations. The most likely scenario is Omar Soleiman serving as caretaker president until September, the date of next presidential election. In that case, Israel and the United States can save time and negotiate with the next likely president over relations with the Jewish state and the Middle East peace process. What the United States mustn’t forget is that the new realities in Middle East implicate a strategic turn in US policies. US should dispense with its obsolete Cold War mindset or forget about any sustainable solution to the Middle East crises.

6 Sunday February 2011 16:2

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