President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule has come to its end eighteen days after Egyptian citizens, watching what happened in Tunisia, took the streets, demanding his resignation and the corruption that has plagued their country.
Mubarak's newly-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, issued the one-sentence statement purportedly issued by the president, ceding his authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. President Barack Obama, as well as Egyptian military offers and the protesters on the street, were expecting Mubarak to offer his resignation last night but the embattled autocratic president merely offered to cede more powers to his vice president and refused to step aside.
The embattled autocrat in all likelihood was ousted by the military after its high ranking officials saw he wasn't going to resign on his own. The president himself, did not issue the statement. It was issued from Suleiman after he fled to Sharm el-Sheik and after the protests, originally centered on Tahrir Square, spread to the state-run news agency, the parliamentary building, and the president's own palace. Soldiers guarding the president's palace turned their turrets from the protesters to the side, in an apparent expression of solidarity.
We can expect the Republicans, who have for the most part remained quiet, to break with the president. The debate over who lost Egypt will begin. Two potential Republican nominees, three-term former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas)and former Senator Rick Santorum, have already expressed their support for Hosni Mubarak and have rebuked the president because he did not, in their view, did not back our beleaguered ally.
In his interview with FOX News, Huckabee relayed the concerns of some international officials after speaking to the Israeli Prime Minister, Israeli cabinet ministers, and 20 European Parliament members (none mentioned specifically by name). They, he claims, were surprised because the president, in their opinion, abandoned President Mubarak too quickly, sending the message that he would abandon the remaining American allies when it becomes politically inexpedient.
The U.S.-backed monarchs in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Israelis, have the most to fear from the Egyptian revolution. The protests that have received the most coverage have occurred in Egypt but the media's attention may occur to the protests taking place in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen now that the Hosni Mubarak has stepped down. Yemen's autocratic president promised he would not run again. Jordan's king, in an attempt to step ahead of the protesters in his country, sacked his cabinet and prime minister. The Saudi king, for his part, denounced the protests shortly after they began.
Israeli Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu's concerns are understandable if only because he never trusted the president to back him at the negotiating table with the Palestinians. The president had publicly pressed the prime minister to maintain the freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank and restart the negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. This effort ultimately failed and the likelihood that they will begin anew is all but dead now that the Israelis have potentially lost one of its more faithful and trustworthy allies in Mubarak.
Mubarak no doubt was a reliable American ally. He faithfully detained and tortured Islamic terrorists when we wanted him to and he upheld the peace treaty with Israel that was signed by his predecessor. This peace treaty, however, was made by the heads of state and was not made by a government that was responsive to the Egyptian people as a whole. The Israelis have very reason to fear that a democratically-elected Egyptian administration would favor Israel's negotiating tactics less while expressing its solidarity with the Palestinian people. While the anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood would gain a stronger voice within a new Egyptian administration, the Egyptians would not compromise its alliance with the Americans and the billions of dollar in aid it receives, by reneging on the peace treaty it signed with the Israelis.
Our influence in shaping the political response in Egypt, in any event, was severely limited. The writing on the wall as soon as we saw the armed forces' reaction to the the thousands of Egyptian protesters gather at Tahrir Square. We saw troops letting the protesters stand on their tanks. We saw troops setting up barricades and ultimately protect the anti-Mubarak protesters after the Egyptian president's supporters turned violent. We did not see the Egyptian military personnel fire upon the protesters and we did not see them, in any way, enforce the curfew Mubarak imposed 18 days ago.
President Obama had no choice but to distance himself, however, gradually and carefully, from our long-term ally, lest the protesters and eventual winners turn their wrath against the United States and back a militantly anti-American regime in the upcoming elections. By distancing himself from the autocrat, President Obama provided the secular, and pro-American middle, an opportunity to gain the street credit it ultimately will need in those upcoming elections.
Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) critiqued the president at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He couldn't understand why the president wouldn't back the pro-American Mubarak regime against the Tahrir protesters after "backing" the anti-American theocratic regime in Iran against the green revolutionaries clamoring for a presidential election recount.
The former senator grossly distorted and over-simplified the president's response to both revolts. In both cases, the president reacted conservatively by backing the reforms (in Egypt) or a recount (in Iran) without calling for a change in government, and Santorum's accusations notwithstanding, the president said nothing until there were the uprisings in both cases. Obama was content to work with Mubarak for as long as he had him. He did not undermine our national interests by calling for his ouster and then only indirectly and behind the scenes, until he had to. And however much he may have preferred Iranian "moderate" Mir-Hossein Mousavi over Ahmadinejad, the president demonstrated his willingness to negotiate with the regime then in power.
The president has acted like the prudent, hard-headed realist we should expect from him. He must, in his official capacity as our head of state and head of government, negotiate with the administrations that other countries have; not the ones that we merely want.
Prudence dictated Obama's conservative approach in Iran for three reasons. First, the president in Iran is for the most part a figurehead. True power is held by the conservative clerics and the Supreme Leader, so a recount in a close election wouldn't have made a real difference in promoting the widespread change in Iran we'd hope for. Our enthusiasm was tempered when a former moderate who won the Iranian presidency was thwarted by the conservative clerics who truly ran Iran.
Just as important to the administration was the feared anti-American backlash that would follow if we intervened more forcefully. Our president did not want to undermine the revolutionaries' national patriotism by providing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerics that backed him with any new talking points that would undermine the protesters' commitment to Iran's future (as opposed to America's future).
Third and lastly, Obama figured he would need to negotiate with the government the Iranians had and any attempt to reach an accommodation on nuclear inspections would be shattered if the president appeared to back an insurrection or coup d'etat, whether it was implemented by the people or not. In Iran, unlike in Egypt, the Iran's government had the full backing of the Iranian military and its elite and dogmatically-inspired Republican Guard so our president expected the Ahmadinejad and the puppeteers that backed him to survive.
Backing the Iranian revolutionaries would not have worked without a stronger intervention from our end. The Chinese and Russian governments would not have signed onto any meaningful sanctions so the only way we could back the green revolutionaries would have involved the very sort of costly military intervention that would have undermined their campaign to begin with.
The developing situation in Egypt required a different response from the Obama administration. As I have noted above, the president could not, under any circumstances, back Egypt's autocratic ruler even if we wanted him to. The writing was on the wall. Mubarak was out, and the only question was whether he would step down in a matter of days or a matter of weeks. The Egyptians would never forgive an American administration that urged the protesters to "go home" or an American administration that reiterated its support for an administration that no longer captured the imagination of the Egyptian people.
And in Egypt, unlike in Iran, the change that was called for was not merely a change in a ceremonial figurehead; it was the change in the regime in its entirety. The protesters were not clamoring for a change in the president who served with an ayatollah's blessing. They were clamoring for the free and fair elections of a president whose power to change events on the ground are meaningful.
Obama, to his credit, realized this and gently urged the president to step aside. He publicly backed the Egyptians' right to protest and urged the Egyptian military to refrain from any violent resolution to the standoff while privately calling on Mubarak to resign. The president, also to his credit, did not try to humiliate the president or the Egyptian military, by publicly calling for his resignation. This had to look like the genuinely Egyptian revolution that it was.
The president now must call for an orderly transition that should be led by the Egyptian military. Specifically the president must call for the lifting of martial law as well as constitutional reforms guaranteeing everyone the right to peaceably assemble. He must call for the release of anyone who was imprisoned for protesting at Tahrir Square (and other locations throughout Egypt) and for negotiations with the anti-Mubarak opposition.