From Steven A. Cook
Mubarak is on his way back to Egypt. Well done, folks. It’s amazing how much mileage we can… all… squeeze… out… of a meeting that is notable for its general lack of newsworthiness. If I had to score this one, I hate to say it, but I would give the edge to the Egyptians. I think the Obama people got snookered by the Middle East. President Hosni Mubarak came to the White House, demonstrating he is back and bilateral relations are on track without returning the favor to his host. It is true that everything—nuclear proliferation, terrorism, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, democracy (or lack thereof), and the Arab-Israeli conflict—was on the table, but it seems President Obama did not get what he needed/wanted most: A commitment from Mubarak for an Arab gesture toward Israel.
The prevailing discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the nation’s capital suggests that some sort of positive signal from the Arab world to Israel will make a settlement freeze more tenable to average Israelis and encourage them to take the hard steps that lie ahead. Mubarak wasn’t buying it and there is little reason to believe that he would. Egyptians argue that Cairo has a peace agreement with Israel, there is security cooperation between the two countries, and the Egyptian head of Intelligence spends a great deal of time on issues important to Israel. Why is an additional gesture necessary? More broadly, the Arab world points to the Arab Peace Initiative that then-Crown Prince Abdallah tabled in 2002, which promised Israel normalization of relations once there is a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as the most important gesture to the Israelis. If that is not incentive enough for the Israelis to negotiate in good faith, what is? So we are left with platitudes about progress and the need for all parties to do more to create an environment for peace. I sincerely hope no one left the Vineyard for this snoozer.
In all seriousness, the result of the meeting ups the ante for Obama’s planned big statement on Middle East peace. Perhaps if he throws down the gauntlet in a big forum, his international prestige will compel the parties to take the necessary steps toward peace. It is hard not believe, however, that Obama just learned a very important lesson about the limits of American power to get friendly governments to do things Washington wants.
The other items on the agenda seemed secondary, but I was not there so I don’t know for sure. If Abdel Monem Said’s Washington Post piece is any guide, the Egyptian delegation was, among other things, seeking to enlighten its American counterpart on problems in Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. That’s all well and good. Thanks for putting it on our radar screen. Yet, what are the Egyptians bringing to the table to help Washington deal with these very difficult problems? If Egypt’s response to the problem of piracy, which directly affects Egypt where it counts—in Suez Canal tolls—is any guide, Cairo does not plan on offering very much. Rather than deploy its navy to ensure safe passage in the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Red Sea and the Canal, Egypt suggested the establishment of a regional information center on piracy, and Mubarak proposed that merchant ships arm themselves with heavy artillery to deal with the problem.
Both President Obama and the Secretary of State Clinton confirmed that they raised human rights and reform issues, which is a good thing, but I am skeptical that the United States is going to get very far with Mubarak. It seems to me that given the nature of the regime, it’s going to be awfully hard for opposition groups to dislodge Mubarak or any of his likely successors even with Washington’s help. I am channeling Gramsci here. It’s a fantasy to believe that civil society groups can disarm the Egyptian gendarme state. It’s true that Mubarak relies on coercion, the least efficient means of political control, which suggests that he is vulnerable to counter-narratives. Still, those alternative accounts of Egypt exist, whether they are liberal, Islamist, leftist, neo-Nasserist, and yet Mubarak seems secure. Yes, I know this is a generational issue. That’s why I think it was good thing that President Obama and his Secretary of State raised the issue of reform even if they are intent on treating the relationship more broadly than their predecessors.
In the end, I guess the Obama administration is more Rumsfeldian than it may like to admit. You deal with the Egypt you have, not the one you want.
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