How the White House Approached Egyptian Turmoil

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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.

"We recognize that the bar on the street is set at a place we could never possibly reach," the administration official said. "They want the U.S. to declare Mubarak needs to leave now. We're not in the business of regime change."

"As the president said in Cairo, Bush's freedom agenda has turned into a proxy for regime change, like getting rid of some leaders and replacing them with leaders more friendly to the U.S.," the official said. "The president believes that for these reforms to be real and lasting, these reforms need to be indigenous and lasting and pushed by the people."

It became U.S. policy to nudge Mubarak to a place where he considered it his best option to step aside and allow for free elections - truly free elections - as he had promised to do. By not pressing him to resign immediately, the U.S. was giving Mubarak a graceful way to exit. At around 4:15 p.m. on Friday, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was holding a deputies committee meeting on another subject when Obama suddenly walked in - "crashed the thing" was how participants put it - and "told everyone he wanted to call Mubarak and speak to the nation about Egypt."

The president walked back up to the Oval Office and stopped just outside the door. His assistant, Katie Johnson, was watching Mubarak's first televised address to Egypt on her television set, and Obama lingered to see what Mubarak had to say. It was insufficient. A short, midnight Cairo time statement dissolving his government (and reconstituting it with former officials) would not satisfy the demands of the protesters. Mubarak had calculated that his vice presidential appointment of Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence minister who had helped the U.S. render terrorism suspects, and who probably has the best relationship with Israel of all of Mubarak's senior advisers, would pacify the West. (The U.S. has been urging Mubarak to appoint a vice president for decades).

A few minutes later, Mubarak was on the phone. "The president told him that he was going to speak to the American people and would be clear about what he expected out of Egypt, but he was also clear that the U.S. government was not in the business of regime change and that Egypt was our ally," was how another administration official who was privy to the details of the call put it.

As he had in private discussions, Obama said the U.S. would publicly call for four discrete changes: One, an end to the emergency law. Two, free and fair elections. Three, constitutional changes to allow for more freedom of expression. Four, a real dialog with the opposition. Without giving Mubarak an ultimatum, Obama made it clear that the status quo was no longer operative. Obama made sure that Mubarak understood how much the U.S. valued its relationship with Egypt, and pointedly "noted that the U.S. was resisting political pressure to call for Mubarak to resign," an aide said. He implied that U.S. patience was not infinite but it was tactical: the U.S. calculated that the protests would dim if Egyptians really believed that change was on the way. But that was as far as the U.S. policy of non-interference would go. Every action taken by Egypt from then on would be watched.

To say that the National Security staff was in panic mode would be inaccurate. Tired and wary, they spent the first few hours of daylight Saturday preparing for a principals committee meeting later that day to assess Egypt and burgeoning protests elsewhere in the region. A few American allies, like Jordan, were sufficiently worried about simmering tensions inside their own countries that they asked the U.S. to avoid mentioning any government to government contacts. That day, the National Security staff and the State Department asked Frank Wisner, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt who was known to be close to Mubarak, to travel to the region at his earliest convenience. He would not be given the task of urging Mubarak to step down but his presence there would remind Egypt's political leaders that the United States expected constant progress.

Donilon had his staff send invitations to a dozen Egypt experts. Later in the day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talked to his counterpart in Egypt, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, then to Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barack. The read-out was positive: Tantawi was urging restraint, and Israel and Egypt were already discussing contingency plans in the event of - the biblical allusion was noted - a mass exodus out of cities.

On Saturday night, several members of Obama's team allowed themselves a rare break, joining the president and senior adviser David Axelrod at a party celebrating his return to a normal life. But the White House Situation Room's duty officers kept sending over bulletins. There were plenty of heads bobbing up and down, checking Blackberries.

 The watchword by Sunday was "orderly transition." Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated it to his counterpart, the Egyptian military's chief of staff, Gen. Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, that morning. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the phrase on all five Sunday shows. When Obama's press team sent reporters a "read out" about his calls to the region's leaders, it also included the phrase. "The military is very much aware of what we expect and everything they've said to us privately tracks with what they've done in public," the first administration official said.

Correction: An early version of this story wrongly implied that the President's foreign policy team thought Hosni Mubarak was a Coptic Christian.

Image and thumbnail credit: White House photographer Pete Souza