Saturday, January 29, 2011

Washington and Mr. Mubarak

Editorial
NY Times
Published: January 28, 2011

Both President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, in power for three decades, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, in power for 23 years, should have seen this coming. They didn’t — or didn’t care. Both countries share similar pressures: huge numbers of young people without jobs, growing outrage over abusive security forces, corrupt leaders, repressive political systems.

Their people are right to demand more from their governments. The status quo is unsustainable and the result, perhaps inevitable, has been an explosion of protests and rioting in the streets of both countries.

Egypt, with Mr. Mubarak in charge, is an American ally and a recipient of nearly $1.5 billion in aid annually. It is the biggest country in the Arab world and was the first to make peace with Israel. Yemen is home to a dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate and has given the United States pretty much free rein to go after the extremists.

All of which leaves Washington in a quandary, trying to balance national security concerns and its moral responsibility to stand with those who have the courage to oppose authoritarian rulers. American officials must already be wondering what will happen to the fight against Al Qaeda if Mr. Saleh is deposed. And what will happen to efforts to counter Iran and promote Arab-Israeli peace if Mr. Mubarak is suddenly gone?

We won’t try to game Yemen’s politics. Even in Egypt, it’s impossible to know who might succeed Mr. Mubarak. He has made sure that there is no loyal opposition and little in the way of democratic institutions.

In the past, Washington has often pulled its punches on human rights and democracy to protect unholy security alliances with dictators, like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. There came a time when it was obvious that the Marcos tie was damaging American security interests and President Ronald Reagan — along with a people power revolution — played a role in easing him peacefully out of power.

Whether that point comes with Mr. Mubarak is now up to him. So far, he has shown arrogance and tone-deafness. He has met the spiraling protests with spiraling levels of force and repression. On Friday, in a sign more of weakness than strength, the government shut down Internet access and cellphone service. The protestors were undeterred.

Early Saturday, Mr. Mubarak ordered all of his ministers to resign and said his new government would accelerate reforms. He would be far more persuasive if he lifted the communications blackout, reeled in his security forces, allowed credible candidates to compete for president this year, and ensured a free and fair election.

Cables released by WikiLeaks show that the Obama administration has been privately pushing Mr. Mubarak to wake up, release jailed dissidents and pursue reforms. Unfortunately, those private exhortations did not get very far.

The administration struggled to get its public message right this week. On Thursday, it made clear that while Mr. Mubarak is a valuable ally, it is not taking sides but is trying to work with both the government and the protesters. By Friday, the White House said it was ready to “review” aid to Egypt — after Mr. Mubarak cut most communications, called out the army and effectively put Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure and former leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency, under house arrest.

Mr. Obama will have to be willing to actually cut that aid if Mr. Mubarak turns the protests into a bloodbath and fails to open up Egypt’s political system.

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