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Obama Riding a Mideast Tiger

Inter Press Service

Suddenly faced with an unprecedented number of challenges across the Arab world, the administration of President Barack Obama is scrambling hard to keep up.

The fate of President Hosni Mubarak, long regarded as Washington's most powerful Arab ally, no doubt gets top billing as the crisis of the moment, as Egypt girds for what are expected to be massive anti-government demonstrations – bolstered for the first time by the explicit support of the powerful but illegal Muslim Brotherhood – in Cairo and other cities Friday.

Thursday's return to Cairo of Nobel Peace laureate and former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohammed al Baradei and his offer to head a transition government to oversee free elections, as well as reports that the government has banned access to the Internet, have also clearly raised the stakes for what may be a defining moment.

"(I)f crowds emerge from Friday prayers and take to the streets, the regime could be in real trouble," warned Elliott Abrams, George W. Bush's top Mideast aide, on his blog Wednesday. "Friday will be a fateful day."

But the fast-moving situation in Egypt comes as the administration is struggling with other recent events and setbacks in the region that have added to the impression that Pax Americana – as it as been applied to the Middle East for most of the last 40 years – may be coming to an end.

Indeed, the abrupt and largely unpredicted ouster of two U.S.- and Western-backed rulers in the region – Tunisia's longstanding president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri – has confounded policy- makers here.

While the situation in Tunisia, where popular agitation against Ben Ali's successors has continued unabated, remains very much up in the air, the Hezbollah-engineered collapse of Hariri's government and the designation of a Syrian- backed prime minister, Najib Miqati, appears to mark a significant advance by what Washington regards as its primary adversaries – Iran and Syria – in the region.

Meanwhile, the massive public release by al-Jazeera and London's Guardian newspaper of thousands of secret Palestinian documents detailing how much the Western-backed leaders of the Palestine Authority (PA) were willing to give up in peace negotiations with Israel over the past decade and how little Washington was prepared to back them up in the face of Israeli intransigence has dealt a serious – very possibly fatal – blow to the political credibility of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, let alone any prospect for the early resumption of direct talks between the two parties to which the administration has devoted so much time and effort.

But all of these events, as well as Tunisia-inspired anti-government protests in two other key U.S. regional clients, Jordan and Yemen, were effectively eclipsed by the past week's dramatic events in Egypt, Washington's most important Arab ally since Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel in 1979.

Since Camp David, Washington has provided Cairo with an average of 800 million dollars a year in economic assistance and about 1.3 billion dollars a year in military aid. Indeed, Egypt's top military officers, whose loyalty to Mubarak is widely assumed, have been in Washington this week for the latest in a series of regular consultations with their U.S. counterparts.

Despite ritual U.S. complaints about corruption and the country's human rights record and appeals for political reform, Washington has steadfastly stuck by the 82-year-old Mubarak as the principal guarantor of peace with Israel and, more broadly, as a bulwark against anti-Western or Islamist extremism in the region as a whole, since he ascended to the presidency after Sadat's assassination in 1981.

Early in the week, it looked as though the Obama administration was hewing to that tradition. As hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the regime, and thousands clashed with police, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday insisted that "the country was stable", and that Mubarak's government was "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people".

At the State of the Union Address later that evening, Obama, in his only reference to the popular unrest sweeping the region, declared that "The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia," but failed to mention the situation in Egypt.

But, as the sheer size of the protests and the determination of the protestors became clear, the White House changed tack, at least rhetorically. Shortly after Obama finished his speech, officials told reporters that there had not been time to include a reference to Egypt before the text was distributed.

At the same time, the White House released a statement which "urge(d) all parties to refrain from using violence" and said it "expect(ed) the Egyptian authorities to respond to any protests peacefully."

"We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly," the White House said in what would become a mantra over the following 48 hours. It also called on the government "to be responsive to the aspiration of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper."

While such exhortations have been praised by many analysts here, it is not yet clear how seriously Mubarak, who was still being described by the State Department Thursday as a "valuable ally and partner of the United States," will be inclined to take that advice. Or how Obama will respond if he does not, particularly given widespread fears in the foreign policy establishment that the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organised opposition force in Egypt, could emerge from any transition period in command.

"When President George W. Bush made his push for democracy in Arab lands, he ended up with Hamas terrorists winning a democratic election and ruling the Gaza Strip," warned Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the centrist Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), in the Daily Beast Thursday.

"The administration's move (to 'not take sides') is a slide toward the unknown," he added, stressing possible similarities between Egypt today and radicalisation of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. "The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the lynchpin to peace in the Middle East."

"(A)uthoritarian regimes (like Mubarak's) are the foundation of the America-led regional order," noted Marc Lynch, a Mideast specialist at George Washington University on his foreignpolicy.com blog. "For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies – to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today."

"I would expect that the administration's attitude is to keep backing Mubarak to the bitter end, although they are probably developing a Plan B," said Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report. "That would mean hoping that Mubarak's remaining cronies – who are far more numerous and widely distributed than Ben Ali's in Tunisia – can blunt the force of continued popular unrest."

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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