How the White House Approached Egyptian Turmoil

Obama on phone with Mubarak - embed2.jpg

President Obama on the phone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on Friday. Vice President Joe Biden listens at left.

A few months after Barack Obama took office, CIA analysts monitoring the Middle East received an unusual request from the National Security Council. The president had appreciated the in-depth country profiles the intelligence community had prepared for him to read. But there was something missing. The white papers all assessed what various groups within each country didn't like about the United States - but there was very little about what they admired. So that's what Obama wanted to know: What do Yemenis, Qataris and Egyptians like about the U.S.?

The answer, in the case of Egypt, was the American education system. The competition for visas to study inside the U.S., particularly among those with a bent toward the hard sciences, was fierce. And it was considered a point of pride for a family member to brag about his brother studying overseas. The National Security Council and the State Department turned this nugget of insight into policy: Obama would expand the number of educational visas available to qualified Egyptian students. The State Department would increase its direct outreach to Egyptians; it would hold entrepreneurship and science summits, and would convene gatherings of Egyptians to meet with visiting American scientists. 

As the White House's focus turned to Egypt late last week, the aspirations of young Egyptians were very much on the president's mind.

After Tunisia, the intelligence community, the diplomatic community and the White House all anticipated that protests would spread. The sheer number of calls the State Department was fielding from other governments was a clue: lots of mid-level diplomats in the Mideast wanted to know what their counterparts at State were hearing and seeing.

What they were seeing was "a sort of contagious element," a senior administration official said. (Like others, the official offered a candid assessment on the condition of anonymity because events were still unfolding.) "By Thursday night we were warning journalists and our allies that we anticipated that Friday would be a tough day ... and that there would be some stark images."

Egypt was simply the most logical candidate for unrest. Protests of some sort erupted in the country fairly regularly. Anger at President Hosni Mubarak for breaking his promise to lift the country's decades-old emergency law was acute. A food shortage was in the offing. The government wasn't able to distribute coupons for bread that many smaller vendors relied upon. Mubarak had long ago lost the formal support of the Egyptian Army, who, the U.S. was fairly certain, would never take up arms against the people.

On Monday, January 24 and Tuesday January 25, the White House watched the first wave of mass protests in Cairo. Ironically, there was little about the internal political debate inside the country that the U.S. was not privy to, a consequence of its close military relationship with the Egyptian Army and Air Force, which had kept informal tabs on the government for Americans. Most Egyptian military officials of consequence were in the U.S for an annual training exercise assessment last week, as were several of the country's intelligence officials. The early briefings were basic. Outside of the National Security staff and State Department desk officials, the knowledge about Egypt's political structure was thin. A number of White House officials were given an Encyclopedia Britannica-like briefing about the basics: how many U.S. citizens were inside the country and contingency plans to get them out; reminders that Egypt wasn't a Muslim country; the Muslim Brotherhood was at once an opposition political party and a co-opted part of the social system. The government encouraged its charities and even accepted its recommendations for cultural censorship while treating its political platform as anathema.

The Brotherhood had done a poor job of recruiting young Egyptians; its membership ranks were fewer than polls showed. The strong secular undercurrent in most major Egyptian cities kept the Brotherhood in check as much as the heavy-handed security forces did. 

On Friday morning, Obama turned his intelligence briefing into a seminar about Egypt, peppering his foreign policy team with questions about the relationship between Egyptian police and the military. During his mid-day press briefing Friday, press secretary Robert Gibbs seemed to imply that further U.S. aid to Egypt would be contingent upon the country's reactions to the protests, which had reached gale-force size. Obama's advisers believed that the informal checks and balances that had kept Egypt firmly in America's corner would continue with or without Mubarak.

The military was the key: most of the more then $1 billion in annual aid, a legacy of the Sadat-Begin peace accord, flows directly to them. Publicly insinuating that future money would be conditioned on how Egyptian leaders handled the protesters' demands was less of a direct threat than simply the application of direct leverage: Mubarak would have to tread lightly when ordering his military to backstop his police; for the military, siding with the police would be tantamount to abandoning the U.S.

What does the U.S. want?

Principally, an ally in the region that will not further destabilize the Arab-Israeli peace process, that will not complicate dealings with Iran, that will not (significantly) threaten Saudi Arabia's intra-Arab political aspirations while simultaneously containing them. The reality by late last week, as Obama and his advisers came to conclude, was that Egypt 2.0 would be a reforming Egypt as well. The sooner Mubarak understood this, the better. And of course, given that the protesters focused so cleanly on Mubarak as the source of their discontent, he would have to go. But Obama insisted that his team not call for regime change. For one thing, though protesters might suddenly experience a flood of positive feeling toward the United States, given the general level of anti-U.S. hostility inside the country, at least as assessed by intelligence reports, any government seen as being endorsed by the U.S. would risk legitimacy in the long-run.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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