February 8, 2011

Barack, Barak, and Mubarak (and Bibi, too!)

President Obama spent his first two years in the White House listening to many voices on Middle East policy. Two of the real veterans from the region have been Ehud Barak and Hosni Mubarak. Like most forty-something Americans, myself included, Barack Obama did not happen to serve in the military. But these Israeli and Egyptian former generals have a command of strategy, diplomacy, and personal charm. What they did not have, it turns out, was a stable political base. 

Would the White House have acted differently if Barak and Mubarak were not supplying ideas and tactics? Perhaps not. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem to have let Ehud Barak's status as his defense minister affect the policies of his government. Both Israelis, the right-wing retired lieutenant colonel and the left-wing retired Chief of General Staff (and both commandos at heart), have their own personal connections to Mubarak, each having served previously as Prime Minister. They also know the new Vice President of Egypt, the former head of military intelligence.

Netanyahu himself may have led on President Obama, or at least the White House followed his lead. At this stage, the current Israeli government has scarce credibility in Washington on anything to do with Palestinians.

Omar Suleiman is not only the handpicked deputy of President Mubarak, he's also the least likely democratic reformer in the Nile Delta. But the Great Powers have spoken, and the best our heroes of Tahrir can hope for at this stage is a transitional government, possible revised constitution followed by new elections, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement among Western-style democrats, Islamist politicians, and the military. This might work, but it will take time. 

The daily demonstrations may need to be adjusted, and perhaps they are already shifting from blanket calls for Mubarak's immediate departure to demands that credible and legitimate leaders of the masses be allowed into the carefully scripted "negotiations".

Having captured the attention and imagination of Western audiences and governments, Egyptians may now have to listen in return. Careful what you wish for.

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