Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak resignation creates vacuum for U.S. in Mideast

By Scott Wilson
Friday, February 11, 2011; 3:42 PM

President Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down Friday after three decades in power presents the Obama administration with a political vacuum where a stalwart ally once stood, shaking up the Arab Middle East in ways that present as much peril as promise for U.S. interests in the region.

Emerging from the secular nationalist movement that produced Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mubarak presented five U.S. presidents with a choice: push for greater democracy in a bellwether nation that gave birth to modern political Islam or tolerate repression in the name of regional stability and to support an Arab government willing to offer Israel a tepid partnership.

For decades, the U.S. government chose the latter path. But the option came at the expense of U.S. popularity among Egyptians, and the millions of other Arabs living under U.S.-backed autocrats in Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Gulf emirates.

President Obama sought to soften that legacy during the weeks of demonstrations in Cairo by calling for a swift political transition from Mubarak's rule to fair elections, irking U.S. allies among the region's other autocrats yet failing to appease the Egyptians in the streets.

In a brief statement on Mubarak's resignation, Obama said Friday that the United States would remain a "friend and partner" during the country's tumultuous political transition, which he called on Egypt's military to make sure "is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people."

"This is not the end of Egypt's transition," Obama said. "It is the beginning."

The American record of support for Mubarak will likely shape the democratic process that may emerge from the protests of Tahrir Square and the posture of such opposition groups as the Muslim Brotherhood. The wellspring of the region's Islamist political movements, its opposition to Israel endures.
Rigid institutions

Mubarak leaves behind the rigid institutions and laws of a police state, including the emergency decree he used to suspend many civil liberties, and a powerful army with a large stake in who leads the country. Egypt's Armed Forces Supreme Council announced Friday it would rule the country, at least temporarily.

"Obama's insistence that this was about how Egypt is governed, not who governs Egypt, which was awkward for him, is actually the right thing to be insisting on now that Mubarak is gone," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

"A successful transition would have implications in and beyond the Arab world," he continued. "It will be inspiring for opposition movements, but also potentially something that causes governments to crack down harder."

By necessity, the Obama administration is already looking beyond Cairo, just as it quickly turned the page on Tunis after President Zine Abidine Ben Ali fled amid public protest last month, to the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the only other Arab nation at peace with Israel.

What senior U.S. officials see in those kingdoms' economic stagnation, youthful populations, and simmering political frustration is a potential echo of Tunis and Cairo - and political change that could usher out allies in favor of an angry, anti-Western opposition. How to encourage the election of governments not only responsive to their electorates but also to U.S. interests remains the uncharted challenge ahead.

"There are a number of countries in the Arab world that reflect some of the same concerns... the lack of freedoms, the lack of political reform, the lack of truly free and open elections," CIA director Leon Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee this week. "The triggers, the factors that kicked off what happened in Egypt could very well impact in other areas."

A military man by training, Mubarak for decades deftly played the United States off against its fears and those of its chief ally in the region, Israel.

He inherited the Camp David accords from his predecessor, Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamists for agreeing to peace with Israel in exchange for a return of the Sinai Peninsula and the promise of long-term U.S. aid.

Egypt has long occupied the political and cultural heart of the Arab world, and Mubarak's move held the promise of encouraging more Arab leaders to follow suit.

But only Jordan would do so - more than a decade later - and Mubarak rarely spent his own political capital promoting a wider peace with Israel that his own people largely opposed.
Stand against political Islam

Mubarak's stand against political Islam made him even more essential to U.S. interests in the region following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when he directed his intelligence agencies to assist the United States in counterterrorism efforts, including interrogations of suspects that the CIA flew to Egypt.

He tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood once the party officially renounced violence, although his Interior Ministry kept a close eye on the mosques and ballot boxes whenever he called elections that invariably when his party's way.

And he offered himself as a liaison to Hamas, the armed Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories that is a Brotherhood offshoot. The United States and Israel classify Hamas as a terrorist group.

That left Mubarak and his longtime intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to serve as mediators between Hamas, which the Egyptian leader feared, and Israel, which he mistrusted. Mubarak recently named Suleiman vice president.

But Mubarak's work to broker a political truce between Hamas and Fatah, the secular Palestinian movement of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, never brought the two sides together. The Palestinian national movement remains as fractured as it was when Mubarak took up the task.

The increasing political volatility in the region has large implications for U.S. security interests, and some of the most vulnerable countries are important in different ways.

The aging Saud monarchy of Saudi Arabia, home to roughly a fifth of the world's proven oil reserves, governs a population where many are influenced by the most extreme interpretation of Islam that is hostile to Western culture.

The cosmopolitan Saudi elite fear the majority and have accepted the Sauds as an alternative to a more severe Islamist government. How the octogenarian leadership would weather a popular uprising is unclear.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II has fired his government and taken steps to appease public anger fanned by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Sandwiched between a fragile Iraq and the volatile Palestinian territories, Jordan has been a pro-Western oasis for years, often over the objection of population includes majority of Palestinian descent and a large Iraqi diaspora.

And in Yemen, where demonstrators have taken to the streets against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Obama administration is carrying out counter-terrorism operations in secret partnership with the government.

Yemen is home to al-Qaeda's most ambitious affiliate, a franchise already linked to a series of near-miss terrorist attacks against the United States, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day of 2009.

As part of the counter-terrorism effort, the United States has begun flying armed Predators over the country. The drones have yet to fire, however, because of what U.S. officials have described as difficulty in obtaining reliable intelligence.

In prepared testimony on Capitol Hill, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that unless U.S. disruption efforts improve, the Yemeni affiliate "probably will grow stronger."

"Saleh is facing some profound challenges," Clapper said.

Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.


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