Yesterday I said that I’d been more or less satisfied with the Obama Administration’s rhetorical reaction to the events in Egypt. I’m starting to think, though, that it’s time to become more forceful about calling for Mubarak to step down.
Thus far, the American response to the protests in Egypt has been one of hedging – offering general rhetorical support for Egyptian self-determination, warning against a crackdown, but not officially calling for any particular outcome. That’s seemed to be the right course to this point. Particularly during the first few days of protest, when it was unclear whether this was just a flare-up that the Mubarak regime would weather, I think there was rightful wariness of staking out a strong position. As I noted, it’s not as though we have much leverage here in the first place, and if the challenge to the Mubarak regime had quickly petered out, an overly hasty public abandonment of Mubarak would hurt the American relationship with Egypt, make the Administration look inept, and add more fodder to the narrative of an out-of-touch, bullying America throwing its weight around the Middle East and imperiously pronouncing who does and doesn’t get to rule the states therein. As with events in Iran in 2009-2010, the danger that American rhetorical support might be a poisoned chalice for the protesters’ cause was (and is) quite real.
The protests, though, haven’t petered out. Indeed, by all reports, they’re starting to gain organizational coherence and something resembling an affirmative program. What’s more, Mohammad ElBaradei, who (if one believes recent reports) is beginning to emerge as something of a movement leader, has actually asked the United States to take a more assertive stance against Mubarak. We seem to be reaching the point where hedging is no longer smart policy. As Steve Walt points out, Mubarak is 83. Even if he somehow manages to weather this crisis, he represents Egypt’s past, not its future.
At this point, I think a pretty good case can be made for getting out ahead of events and calling for Mubarak to step down. It would better position the United States to work within whatever political equilibrium emerges out of these protests. Oh, and for what it’s worth, it would also be the right thing to do.