Obama Forced to Reconsider Mideast Policy as Protests Roil Cities in Egypt

After decades of backing authoritarian regimes in the Mideast and North Africa as bulwarks against Muslim extremism, the U.S. faces an urgent challenge as popular uprisings sweep the region: how to defend U.S. economic and security interests while supporting democratic values.

President Barack Obama urged non-violence on all sides as Egyptian protesters faced off against police and tanks. In televised remarks from the White House, Obama said he told President Hosni Mubarak that he must take “concrete steps and actions that deliver” political, social and economic change.

“The future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people,” Obama said. “Governments have an obligation to respond to their citizens.”

While the U.S. president was careful not to side with the demonstrators over the Egyptian government, the White House also announced it would review assistance to Egypt, the fourth- largest recipient of U.S. aid in 2011. It was the strongest sign yet that a popular uprising may cause the U.S. to distance itself from a longtime ally.

While the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif resigned today at Mubarak’s request, Mubarak, 82, has ignored demands that he resign. Today he appointed a new vice president, Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt’s intelligence services.

“The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat,” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in a message on Twitter. “President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action.”

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Protests against poverty and lack of government accountability have spread through the region this month. The ouster of longtime Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has inspired knock-on protests in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Jordan.

Egypt, along with all Arab countries except Lebanon and Iraq, is classified as an authoritarian regime in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index.

Peace With Israel

Still, from making peace with Israel in 1979 to serving as a powerful counterweight to the influence of Iran and anti-U.S. militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, Egypt “has been so supportive of U.S. interests” that the U.S. cannot “suddenly walk away” from Mubarak, said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator during several U.S. administrations. “At the same time, we do have a stake in encouraging progressive, centrist moderate forces.”

Obama is wise, he said, to “stay on the sidelines and keep American fingerprints off too much support of the regime on one hand and too much support for protesters on the other.”

Miller, now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said even if the Obama administration does “find the right set of talking points, at the end will it matter? Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen all have something in common: the U.S. is not driving the train on any of these” revolts. “It’s driven by local factors.”

Internet Access

The Egyptian government has restricted Internet and mobile- phone access in the nation of about 87 million people and detained senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a main opposition group.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday the U.S. will review its assistance to Egypt in light of the protests.

More than 80 percent of U.S. aid to Egypt, or $1.3 billion, is military assistance, according to the U.S. State Department. Aid to Egypt is exceeded only by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel in the State Department’s 2011 budget.

Farah Pandith, Obama’s special representative to Muslim communities, said the administration has tried to reach out to the street as well as the rulers in the Middle East.

“Our relationship with Egypt is multifaceted; it isn’t just around one thing or another,” Pandith said yesterday at the Foreign Press Center in Washington. “We have a relationship with both the government and with the people of Egypt,”

Too Little, Too Late

Some democracy advocates in the region say Obama has recognized the movement too little, too late.

Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian opposition figure and former United Nations official and Nobel laureate who returned to Cairo Jan. 27 to join the protests, accused the U.S. of “pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.”

In a Jan. 26 critique posted on The Daily Beast website, ElBaradei said he was “flabbergasted” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments the previous day that Mubarak’s government was stable and should try to respond to the people’s needs. “If you would like to know why the United States does not have credibility in the Middle East, that is precisely the answer,” he wrote.

The Obama administration’s calls for reform in Egypt now are hopelessly behind the curve and may be interpreted in the region as “implicit American endorsement” of the regime, said Steven Cook, fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Catching Up

The U.S. has been scrambling to play catch up with fast- changing events, said Robert Danin, a former official with the so-called Quartet for Middle East Peace, which includes the U.S., the European Union, the UN and Russia.

“On one hand, it’s tried to affirm its continued support for Hosni Mubarak, a regime that has advanced American interests in the region, and at the same time articulate principles of what the protesters are calling for - short of regime change. The problem with this is it comes pretty late in the day.”

“The worse it gets in Egypt,” added Danin, also a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, the harder it will be to reconcile those two approaches.

Shibley Telhami, a former adviser to the U.S. Mission to the UN and the Iraq Study Group, said it’s critical that the U.S. not attempt to insert itself in the events, lest that be perceived as meddling.

Muslim Extremists

If the popular movement is seen as masterminded by Washington, “it could backfire” and Muslim extremists may exploit the situation for their own benefit, said Telhami, a Middle East fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “We’ve lost the ability to control events on the ground.”

Egypt has been the anchor for U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world since the 1970s, and under Mubarak, has remained a strong defender of U.S. interests in the region on a host of issues, from countering Iran’s nuclear aspirations to preventing weapons smuggling from Egypt to Gaza, as recent U.S. cables released by WikiLeaks show.

“Any major change in Egyptian foreign policy” under a potential new government “has huge consequences for the U.S.,” Telhami added.

The White House must be ready to seize the moment to overhaul U.S. policy for the entire region, many observers say.

“The events in Egypt as well as in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria should spark a broader rethink in America’s approach to the entire region,” Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, wrote yesterday. “Currently, the Obama administration is largely stuck in a reactive and tactical crisis management mode on many key fronts.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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