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The Obama Administration’s Next Steps in Egypt: More Proactive Efforts Are Needed

SOURCE: AP/Ahmed Ali

Armed soldiers look down on protesters surrounding military vehicles in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, February 2, 2011.

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Violence today involving opposition protesters and pro-government supporters in Egypt’s streets show the volatility of a crisis that continues to unfold. And the dueling public statements of Presidents Barack Obama and Hosni Mubarak the night before indicate that we are in the early stages of a crisis over how political power is distributed and shared inside Egypt.

Mubarak’s announcement that he will not run in presidential elections slated for this fall has not satisfied the opposition. The opposition views the roadmap for political reform outlined in his speech as insufficient. The unmistakable result: Egypt is now entering a complicated and quite likely protracted period of crisis-driven negotiations between the old order centered in Egypt’s security establishment that has run the country for decades, and a diverse and fractious political opposition to that order.

The changes underway in Egypt today will have wide-ranging implications for America’s broader policies in the Middle East. How the Obama administration continues to manage its approach to Egypt will shape America’s position in the region for years to come.

Most of the analysis on how the Obama administration has handled the crisis in Egypt in its first week focused on surface-level assessments of the administration’s public statements. But it’s important to dig a little deeper to assess how the Obama administration is handling what’s happening in Egypt. Just as the changes in Egypt are probably in their early stages, the Obama administration’s policy approach continues to evolve, centered on four main pillars:

  • A diplomatic full court press with Egypt
  • A road map for a full political transition in Egypt
  • Managing the new regional security landscape
  • A new strategic communications plan with Egypt and the region

Let’s look at each of these pillars in turn.

A diplomatic full court press with Egypt

Starting early last week, President Obama directed his team to engage their counterparts in the Egyptian government as well prominent leaders in the political opposition, civil society, and the business community. The president’s national security advisor coordinated this diplomatic surge with a “matrix”—a spreadsheet-long list of key leaders in Egypt and the region.

In a country like Egypt with multiple centers of power, this diplomacy is crucial for getting a grip on the crisis, communicating messages, and shaping the calculations of several actors. Frank Wisner, a retired diplomat who knows the Mubarak regime well, was sent as a special envoy to Egypt this week as a key part of the process of communicating messages privately and assessing intentions of Egypt’s leaders. These are all essential steps in building a more public strategy.

In addition to the close and regular contacts between our countries’ diplomatic corps, the Pentagon has played an important yet less noticed role in talking with their counterparts in Egypt. Admiral Michael Mullen, Obama’s top military advisor, has coordinated with Egyptian counterpart Sami Enan, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his team are playing an important behind the scenes role.

The quiet ongoing discussion with Egypt’s security establishment is an important part of any effort to help Egypt on a path of true political and economic reform. The country’s security establishment has ruled the country for nearly 60 years, and it is an institution with deep reach into Egyptian society. Getting it to change the way Egypt’s security establishment has done business will require major effort, even if Mubarak leaves tomorrow.

Just as important as these formal government-to-government contacts are, the broad engagement with the diverse political opposition in Egypt by U.S. diplomats is also key, including nongovernmental organizations such as human rights groups and democracy promotion organizations.

In addition to remaining updated about the fast-moving events, this assertive engagement has two main aims. The first: To assess the rifts emerging among the powers that be and the old order that has ruled Egypt. And the second: To understand the nature of the opposition and the likely pathway forward to true political and economic reform.

A road map for a full political transition process in Egypt

The broad diplomatic engagement underway is in large part aimed at helping understand the evolving plan for Egypt’s political transition and power-sharing. As the Obama administration has underscored, it is essential for Egyptians to lead this process. Any notion that political and economic reform has a “Made in America” stamp on it would undermine its legitimacy and credibility.

At this early stage, the process of negotiation among Egyptian political actors and existing centers of power has already begun. Several Egyptian opposition groups have started to coalesce into a new coalition for now, with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood backing former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, at least for now. This factious opposition, in which the new generation of protesters using the Internet to organize, seems to have taken the lead with the old guard falling in behind them. But it is likely to experience multiple phases of change as each have competing demands.

For now, the opposition seems unified in the position that Mubarak must stand down now. The diversity of voices in the opposition will make the forthcoming negotiations over political reform more complicated. And it seems almost inevitable that any real democratic opening would lead to greater participation of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in a future Egyptian government.

The new government Mubarak appointed last weekend called for a dialogue process under Omar Suleiman, the new vice president and longtime security chief in Egypt. Last night, Mubarak called upon the parliament—a body stacked with Mubarak allies elected in the November 2010 elections that were considered flawed—to initiate constitutional amendments to open up the race for president in the coming elections this fall. Leaders from competing centers of power in the country are staking out their demands. Expect this process of negotiated political reform to take some time given divisions among Egypt’s fractious opposition and quiet rifts among the current powers that be in Egypt.

The Obama administration’s calls for free and fair presidential elections this fall are a step in the right direction, but quite likely not enough given the growing demands from various opposition groups. A re-run of parliamentary elections along with deeper constitutional reforms are likely to emerge as items for negotiation as the groups discuss political reform. These deeper issues of sharing power will inevitably be more complicated than the simple question of whether Mubarak stays or goes in the coming days or weeks.

Managing the new regional security landscape

While this complicated crisis and probably protracted reform process unfolds in Egypt, the Obama administration remains mindful of the implications events in Egypt have on what happens in the rest of the region. What happens in Egypt is not going to stay in Egypt—and leaders and opposition figures alike in neighboring countries are watching carefully how the Obama administration deals with a long-standing ally like Egypt.

Another aspect of the Obama administration’s diplomatic surge underway in Egypt is its diplomatic regional outreach, taking the temperature of allies and assessing the security situation in countries such as Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Israel, too, has stated quiet concerns about the implications of the transition in Egypt, which was the first country to make peace with Israel. Some Egyptian opposition figures have opposed the treaty with Israel.

All of these tensions and concerns can be managed. It seems unlikely that Egypt anytime soon would seek to change its bilateral ties with Israel, which have been described as a “cold peace.” After the dust settles in Egypt, a new Egyptian government is going to have its hands full dealing with the problems central to the demands of the protesters—economic and social problems at home.

Nevertheless, in the medium- to long-term, the events in Egypt are likely to reshape the regional security landscape. The United States needs to maintain the security and counterterrorism cooperation with allies in the region without using such cooperation as an excuse to avoid supporting openings for political and economic reform. The old way of doing business in the Middle East—striking bargains with autocratic leaders—is not looking sustainable in the face of economic, demographic, and political trends in the region.

Strategic communications within Egypt and the region

As the Obama administration manages the crisis, works with Egyptians to develop a road map for political reform, and deals with the regional security implications, it needs to have a sharper strategic communications campaign focusing on the region. Washington will naturally try to control the message from inside the beltway, but given how quickly events are unfolding in different time zones, it seems inevitable that the Obama administration’s talking points may end up being a few steps behind events.

Given the rapid pace of events, it is difficult enough for the Obama administration to respond with presidential and cabinet level statements. But it is important for the administration to become more active and present in the regional media outlets than it has been in the first week of the crisis. The regional media landscape has become more complicated, but it has a major impact on how people in the Middle East view events.

More than one week into the crisis, the Obama administration has started to gain its footing in developing the right policy and strategic communications response to the country’s unrest. But events are unfolding rapidly and the ground shifting nearly every hour. The Obama administration still has its work cut out for it in the coming weeks and months.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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