The Obama administration continues to turn up the heat on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, after two years of quietly monitoring human rights abuses by his regime and doing nothing.
The rapid response of the White House to the protests in Egypt contrasts starkly with the Obama administration’s total silence during the first two weeks of the Green Movement protests in Iran in June 2009, even though the Iranian protesters openly called for U.S. support in their struggle to over-turn the re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
At the time, Obama said the United States did not want to give the impression of interfering in Iran’s domestic politics.
"It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be,” Obama said after millions of Iranians defied the government for more than four days in massive street protests demanding that their votes be counted. “We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.”
The administration displayed no such restraint in responding to the massive street protests in Egypt this past week, and even seemed to time its statements in such a way as to spark additional protests.
“I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform — political reform, economic reform — is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said in a YouTube forum. “And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.”
The very next day, millions of Egyptians received their marching orders during Friday prayers at mosques in Cairo and other major cities, and poured out into the streets in massive demonstrations that have rocked the Egyptian regime.
On Saturday, Mubarak announced that he was promoting his long-time intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman as his vice-president, a move that was coordinated between the White House and top Egyptian military officers who met with President Obama the day before in an effort to manage a peaceful hand-over of power.
Just hours later, the State Department dismissed Mubarak’s efforts, undercutting the very officers who thought they had struck a deal with the White House.
“The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowly said in a Twitter message. “President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action.”
The flurry of U.S. government statements against Mubarak and in favor of the protesters in Egypt have been described by some commentators as a clever attempt to convince the Egyptian people that the United States supports their struggle for civil and political rights, easing the transition to a pro-Mubarak government while retaining Egypt as an ally.
But even some of the administration’s strongest supporters have warned that Obama is playing with fire.
The administration’s support for the protesters “is a slide toward the unknown,” former New York Times editor Leslie H. Gelb wrote in Newsweek on Sunday. “Senior officials have no idea of exactly who these street protesters are, whether the protesters are simply a mob force incapable of organized political action and rule, or if more sinister groups hover in the shadows, waiting to grab power and turn Egypt into an anti-Western, anti-Israeli bastion.”
Most observers fear that the U.S. efforts to encourage the protest movement will lead to a behind-the-scenes takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, the long-outlawed Islamist movement responsible for the assassination of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and that spawned Ayman al-Zawahri, No. 2 of al-Qaida.
Such a takeover in fact may be Obama’s intention, just as his intention during the post-election protests in Iran was to support the regime in place because he saw it as a potential partner in resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The Obama administration has taken numerous steps over the past two years to convince the Muslim Brotherhood that this White House no longer views them as an enemy.
Two months before Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, where he offered a “new beginning” to Muslims in their relations to the United States, he welcomed two members of the Egyptian group to the White House for quiet political consultations, according to the Egyptian army newspaper, Al Masry al-Ayoum.
He also lifted a ban on travel to the United States on Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Islamist scholar who is the grandson of the founder of the Brotherhood, and went out of his way to invite Muslim Brotherhood members of Egypt’s parliament to attend his Cairo speech.
During the April 2009 White House meeting, the unnamed Muslim Brotherhood leaders reassured Obama that a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt would “abide by all agreements Egypt has signed with foreign countries,” according to the Egyptian newspaper account. They also said they favored democracy and would support the U.S.-led war on terror.
But similar statements by Muslim Brotherhood in the past have regularly been parsed to mean the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean on the surface.
For example, the Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize Israel as a country, so their pledge to abide by Egypt’s agreements with “foreign countries” does not apply to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood does not consider groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist organizations, and calls al-Qaida attacks on U.S. servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan acts of legitimate resistance against a foreign occupier.
Statements in favor of free elections do not transform the Muslim Brotherhood into a democratic group, says a former top Israeli military intelligence analyst, Dr. Mordechai Hadar.
“Democracy is not just about elections,” Hadar told congressional staffers last week in Washington. “It’s also about rights — women’s rights, minority rights, freedom for gays and lesbians."
Hadar had warnings for the Israeli Embassy: “If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over in Egypt, it means the end of the peace treaty [with Israel], and the life expectancy of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo will be calculated in minutes."
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the former secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed that he is working hand in glove with the Muslim Brotherhood on CNN’s “GPS” program with Fareed Zakaria on Sunday.
“I have been reaching out to them, that we need to include them, that they are a part of Egyptian society,” ElBaradei said. Muslim Brotherhood Throws Support to ElBaradei.
ElBaradei tried to downplay the Brotherhood’s radical agenda, and dismissed any hint that Egypt would go the way of Iran in 1979, when the former shah’s regime was replaced by an Islamic dictatorship.
Even if the Egyptian army agrees to allow ElBaradei to head some form of transition government, “he is likely at best to be an interim figure — putting a face acceptable to the West on a government he doesn’t control — until either the army or the Brotherhood takes over,” says Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington, D.C.