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Mubarak, Obama, and Washington’s Culpability for Arab Dictators

- June 15, 2012

This is a guest post by Jeremy Pressman.  His earlier guest posts are here.


A budding and important debate about the Arab uprisings is starting to play out in some published and some forthcoming works. I think it can be framed with two questions, one very specific and one much broader, about the U.S. role in the Arab uprisings and the direction of Arab regimes writ large:

1) In January-February 2011, was the Obama administration proactive and supportive of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt or was the U.S. administration reactive and behind the curve?

2) How central is the United States to the maintenance of Arab authoritarianism?

Marc Lynch’s book, which is already out, gives the Obama administration credit for quickly working – first behind the scenes and then in public – to get Mubarak to step down. (see pages 94-95) In contrast, Jason Brownlee, in Current History last November and in this recent video chat (see about 6:50; h/t The Arabist) is dismissive of Obama’s moves, seeing them as a continuation of the long-standing U.S. practice of protecting autocrats like Mubarak who help with the advancement of U.S. strategic interests.

Lynch and Brownlee seem to interpret President Obama’s February 1, 2011 statement quite differently. Obama’s key lines were as follows:

Third, we have spoken out on behalf of the need for change.  After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak.  He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place.  Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people.  Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation.  The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.

Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders.  Only the Egyptian people can do that.  What is clear — and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak — is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now. (emphasis added)

Did that phrasing mean the Obama administration wanted Mubarak out? While that is Lynch’s interpretation, Brownlee minimized its importance:

But this did not necessitate Mubarak’s resignation—he could recede into the background while formally staying in office. Tactically concerned that the Egyptian president was exacerbating the crisis, administration officials focused their energies on Suleiman and military officers.

The United States, Brownlee explained, was happy to have Suleiman run Egypt. In other words, it was a trick, nothing new.

Given these competing claims, I wanted to go to the footnotes, so to speak. What is the detailed evidence for each interpretation? But neither author provides much further support. To be fair, Brownlee’s book, which may cover the point in greater depth, is not out yet. So whether from these esteemed scholars or others, I look forward to seeing the granular details of the Obama administration and Mubarak regime decisionmaking during the crucial January-February 2011 period. What did Obama officials plan for in the White House? What did U.S. officials tell Egyptian leaders? How did the Egyptian officials hear U.S. language and what were their internal deliberations? In short, I hope some juicy process tracing is still to come.

In my own writing on the topic, a chapter for a forthcoming edited volume (Lesch & Haas) on the Arab uprisings, I leaned toward Lynch’s view. But I look forward to more details.

A quick caveat before turning to the larger question: I do not think anyone is arguing the Obama administration turned against the Egyptian military forces and the SCAF. It did not, as the rest of 2011 and 2012 thus far have demonstrated. The uncertainty here is only about the U.S. stance on Mubarak’s ouster.

The larger point that comes up is in relation to the centrality of the United States in the maintenance of Arab authoritarianism. I think the blame-Washington claim has been overemphasized, in part because I think it neglects the ability of people to take control of their own body politic through joining together in mass movements. And though I think he meant it looking forward, I like what Fouad Ajami wrote at the start of 2012: “America should not write itself into every story: There are forces in distant nations that we can neither ride nor extinguish.”

But Brownlee’s argument is very much about the way in which U.S. policy for decades has helped Arab authoritarian regimes maintain themselves through four mechanisms: “national defense, coup proofing, macroeconomic stability, and domestic repression.” And when I read his argument (the article version), it reminded me that Amaney Jamal’s forthcoming book also points to U.S. policy that aided and abetted Arab authoritarianism. So I think we are witnessing an old debate (the U.S. impact on Mideast regimes) in light of a new events (the Arab uprisings).

Part of what is at stake is a related question with relevance in the 2012 U.S. presidential election: does the foreign policy of Democratic and Republican administrations change much? To me (and Brownlee), the Obama administration has sided with tradition: other strategic interests usually trump democracy promotion when interests are in conflict. For an obvious example, see Bahrain.

But I do see differences worth noting: the Mubarak ouster and the high-level engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, Obama has approached military intervention quite differently from George W. Bush. So whereas the message I hear from Brownlee is all about continuity, I (and I would imagine Lynch as well) note some Obama discontinuities. Maybe the donkey and the elephant do differ in meaningful ways on foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

I look forward to seeing this debate continue to unfold.