What Can Obama Do?


Mubarak has been, always and absolutely, America’s man. Now that the Egyptian president’s demise seems both inevitable and imminent, America is desperately stalling as it looks for a way to maintain control of Egypt.

The specific demands made by Barack Obama of Mubarak since the uprisings began — that the internet and social networking be turned back on and that a "period of transition" begin — have both been met. If Obama called on Mubarak to leave the country now, and to hand power over to a transitional government acceptable to the Egyptian population, there is good reason to believe he would do so.

Obama has considerable leverage given the levels of US funding for the Egyptian armed forces and America’s background regional influence. He could encourage the army to come down decisively on the side of the people, but he will do no such thing.

Obama, like Blair, Biden, Bibi (popular nickname for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu), and the others, like our own PM and foreign minister, who equivocate about whether or not Mubarak should step down, have blood on their hands. They could soon have much more, as the regime responds violently to the protests.

The mainstream press has, by and large, been insufficiently clear on the nature of the violence that has swept across Egypt. The looting, the attacks on protesters and journalists are blamed on the regime by the vast majority of Egyptians. They say it has deployed its massive Central Security Force and the police, as well as employees of state firms to intimidate the population.

Ahmed Moor, a Palestinian-American reporter who has been covering the uprising from Cairo was in the thick of the fighting in Tahrir Square last Thursday when thousands of pro-Mubarak men, armed with guns, machetes, iron bars and Molotov cocktails attacked. "People were stabbed," Moor told New Matilda. Elsewhere there has been very credible reporting of protesters simply being shot.

The people fought back with rocks, sticks and whatever else was available. Moor put the ratio of protesters to government forces at a 10 to one ratio. The protesters prevailed and at time of writing they are still in control of Tahrir Square.

Moor told New Matilda that police IDs were found on more than one of the pro-Mubarak men taken by the crowds. He said that some of them, once identified this way, were severely beaten. This is the only credible report I have heard anywhere of violence by the protesters that is not clearly a case of self defence. The violence of the regime, on the other hand, is ubiquitous.

Montasser Bayoud, a film maker and photographer from Cairo told New Matilda that shots were fired at him in a group of people from a civilian car in the neighbourhood of Mohandeseen. Other reports of violence around the city and country abound. In fact, my conversation with Montasser was cut short when he had to go join the other men from his neighbourhood. A group of armed men was approaching his area and he was joining the men of the neighbourhood to defend it.

Mubarak has maintained power over his three decade reign through violence, including a well-documented range of torture. All this while being the second biggest recipient of US foreign aid.

Egypt has been a frequent stop on the way to Guantanamo. Australian Citizen Mamdouh Habib spent six months in Egyptian prisons and torture chambers. Indeed, the recently appointed Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman who was previously the country’s intelligence chief and the "point man" for the US on extraordinary rendition probably signed of on his torture.

This is the man Obama has suggested lead the "transitional government".

The reluctance of world leaders to hasten the inevitable collapse of the regime has been justified, in part at least, by warnings about Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood — who have done little to deserve such credit.

Ahmed Moor calls such fears absurd, telling New Matilda that "the spectre of rabid Islamists over-running Egypt is a figment of the imagination of the West that’s been put there by this aging autocrat Mubarak… It’s been something that the regime has been trying to convince western governments of for decades now, ‘if not us, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood.’"

We could have been forgiven for falling for this lie until the masses of Egypt made it clear that they wanted a say in running the country. Since then the Brotherhood (which foreswore violence decades ago), has agreed with calls for former head of the atomic energy agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, to head the transitional government. Indeed the brotherhood has specifically backed the democratic demands of the protesters, saying "we’re trying to build a democratic arena before we start playing in it".

They could, as others have argued in more detail, end up being the Egyptian version of Germany’s Christian Democrats, or the Justice and Development (AKP) Party that currently leads Turkey, both of which combine religious identity and morals with secular politics.

Indeed, while we hear many predictions that a new Egypt might turn into Iran, the results, if we just got out of the way, could end up looking a lot more like Turkey. Indeed it is conceivable that the two nations could form a new moderate centre-force in the Middle East, between the US and Iranian-led blocks, and act as a moderating force on both.

When New Matilda asked Mr Moor about the foreign policy angle, he responded tersely that such things should not be a primary concern. "This is a victory first for the Egyptian people and secondly for democrats everywhere", he said.

However, events in Egypt are already affecting the region. In Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Sudan and Syria, there is unrest and it is brewing elsewhere. In a revealing twist, protests in solidarity with Egypt have been suppressed by not only Fatah in the West Bank but also by Hamas in Gaza.

That almost all of these oppressive regimes are US client states explains the worry we hear repeated about "instability" in the region. But the fact the Syrian regime, who is not a US ally, is also facing anger from its people is another reason for us to believe in the genuine hunger for democracy in the Arab world.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.