Friday, February 4, 2011

Testing Time

I agree with New York Times reporter/columist Roger Cohen that this is the first true foreign policy test of the Obama administration:
An “orderly transition” is the Obama administration’s objective. The priority must be transition. “A new beginning” is what President Obama sought when he came to Cairo in June 2009. That is impossible with the old extremist-breeding, modernity-denying Arab order. You cannot carve in rotten wood.

When Obama spoke in Cairo, the audience offered polite applause until he said this: “You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these elements, elections alone do not make true democracy.”

Whereupon somebody shouted: “Barack Obama, we love you!”

Remember that cry, Mr. President. This is Obama’s first major foreign policy crisis where the United States has real leverage (not the case in Iran). If Egypt, the Arab hub, manages a transition to some more representative order, that victory will resonate in 2012. If the Egyptian mockery of democracy persists, Obama’s failure will be stark.

The U.S. can no longer advance its interests through double standards apparent to every thinking Arab. Ambivalent U.S. prodding for political opening has produced “nothing, nothing, nothing,” in the words of one frustrated observer. It’s time to be clear: Mubarak’s time is up.

In the swirling crowd, I spoke to two Egyptian lawyers, in their robes, from the northern town of Tanta. Ahmed el-Biery, 34, and Ahmed Romeh, 24, had traveled to Cairo to end “the only regime we have known.” Why their anger? “First, corruption, a bunch of them control the whole economy” said Biery. “Second, no laws, there are thousands imprisoned without trial. Everyone has the right to a trial.”

Biery looked at me with his intense green eyes. “I’m here for my children, so they live better.” That’s a very American idea. Another is this: a nation of laws is fundamental. Mubarak has been a firm ally, kept a cold peace with Israel, and maintained a skewed order at home. I don’t want to see him humiliated. But Obama must stand with Biery against a corrupted, dying regime.
Am I confident that this administration is going to accomplish this? No, I am not. But I am wearily hopeful, and it would certainly raise my view of them.

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