On Egypt, Did Obama's Dithering Hurt or Help?

Many say White House leadership will be crucial as Egypt's military dissolves parliament and suspends the constitution

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Egypt's military dissolved the country's parliament, suspended its constitution, and tried to clear out Tahrir Square Sunday, two days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The parliament was packed with members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, and the constitution was seen "as a major impediment for opposition parties and free elections," The Wall Street Journal's Tamer El-Ghobashy and Sam Dagher report. But the military hasn't offered details on what's happening next--a moment even more critical for fostering Egyptian democracy.

President Obama's handing of the crisis looked unsteady for much of the 18 days protesters rallied in Cairo's streets. And now that the demonstrations are over, figuring out what to do to prevent another strongman from taking over will be even more difficult.

  • Actually, Indecision Worked Out Pretty Well, Slate's John Dickerson writes. When Mubarak announced he'd resign at 11 a.m. eastern time, Obama immediately said he'd give a speech at 1:30 p.m. But the White House quickly had to change the speech time to TDB. "It looked sloppy. But diplomacy is always going to look sloppy when events are moving this quickly. ...  If the United States had overplayed its hand, say administration officials, it would have allowed Mubarak and his allies to claim outside forces were meddling (he did claim that; it didn't work). It also would have suggested the United States had more power to shape events than it did. Most important, it would have detracted from the power and appeal of the protests... Whether by design or dithering, U.S. policy makers didn't get in the way of events in Cairo. That strategy appears to have been successful. That may mean that in a world where developments can move so quickly, TBD is the new SOP."
  • What Freedom Agenda? Commentary's Rick Richman asks. "As the Egyptian revolution heads toward the Bermuda Triangle that awaited the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions, the freedom agenda is being managed by an American president who did not believe in it in the first place; whose first two years were marked by confrontations with democratic allies and extended hands to autocratic adversaries; and who still has not scheduled a trip to Israel — the model for freedom in the Middle East."
  • U.S. Must Watch Egypt's Economy, The Guardian's editors write. The army controls a big chunk of the Egyptian economy, and it's "now expected to manage a process of political liberalisation, but that will be hard to deliver without economic change. Unemployment and inflation were key spurs to popular revolt. The US response will be crucial in that respect. ... Mr Obama squandered potential goodwill on the streets of Cairo by hedging his bets. He should not repeat that mistake by tolerating economic and political stagnation under military rule. US aid is a vital source of income to the Egyptian army. Mr Obama should pull hard on that lever to make sure the pace of reform is brisk."
  • America Loses No Matter What, Niall Ferguson writes in Newsweek. Almost 150 years ago, Otto von Bismarck said, "The statesman can only wait and listen until he hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then he must jump up and grasp the hem of His coat, that is all." Obama heard those footsteps twice--in Iran in 2009 and in 2011's protests--and, Ferguson says, "jumped up to grasp a historic opportunity … and missed it completely." He had two options: shape events to America's benefit or do nothing. In Iran, "he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an 'orderly transition.' The result has been a foreign-policy debacle. The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. ... This failure was not the result of bad luck. It was the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of coherent grand strategy..."
  • We Must Support the Next Revolution, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof writes. It's not clear which autocratic regime will fall next. "But we know that in many places there is deep-seated discontent and a profound yearning for greater political participation. And the lesson of history from 1848 to 1989 is that uprisings go viral and ricochet from nation to nation. Next time, let’s not sit on the fence. After a long wishy-washy stage, President Obama got it pitch-perfect on Friday when he spoke after the fall of Mr. Mubarak. He forthrightly backed people power, while making clear that the future is for Egyptians to decide. Let’s hope that reflects a new start not only for Egypt but also for American policy toward the Arab world. Inshallah."
  • But Would Obama Support Revolt in Cuba? National Review's Victor Davis Hanson wonders. "There are wages to our belated idealism. We all admire America’s current professions of support for human rights — and the apparent end to the reset/realist Obama policies of the last two years — but soon some will ask for consistency. Why do we welcome the demise of a Mubarak, but keep quiet about a Castro or Chávez? ... Why celebrate the freedom in the Cairo streets, but help facilitate its growing suppression in Moscow?"
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