Rupert Cornwell: Egyptian drama that has proved beyond America's control

Share
Related Topics

A clearly disappointed Obama administration was silent last night after President Hosni Mubarak confounded every expectation by refusing to step down. His defiance only deepens the quandary facing Washington: how to encourage democracy in Egypt while protecting its interests in the broader region – when it has scant, if any, power, to shape events.

All day, President Obama held urgent consultations with his top national security advisers, but could do little more than monitor events from afar. Middle East experts here stressed however that despite last night's developments, the process of change was only beginning. "The Mubarak era is basically over," one said.

"We are witnessing history unfold," Mr Obama said during a visit to Michigan, his remarks broadcast live on Egyptian state TV.

A moment of "transformation" was taking place, with the people of Egypt calling for change, young people in the forefront. America, he said, would do all it could to support an "orderly and genuine" move to democracy there.

From the outset, Washington has struggled to keep pace with events in Egypt, first seeming to back President Mubarak, then signalling that it wanted him to step down quickly and hand power to his Vice-President, Omar Suleiman – only for it to become clear that as far as the protesters were concerned, this merely would be to exchange one unpopular autocrat for another.

Thus far, chants of "Down with the USA" have been conspicuous by their absence in Cairo. But as the administration in Washington seemed to endorse a solution that fell short of popular demands, the mood on the streets started to shift against the US, even as the pressure for real change grew irresistible.

But then the Obama team seemed to embrace the protesters' cause again. Earlier yesterday, Leon Panetta, the CIA director, had told a Congressional hearing that his understanding was that the Egyptian President would very soon step down. The immediate silence from the White House and the State Department after Mr Mubarak spoke was a sign of the delicacy of its position.

Washington's task is daunting. Whatever its unspoken preferences, the administration accepts that a more democratic system is essential for a long-term, stable Egypt, and that purely cosmetic change is no longer enough.

But its power is limited. "This crisis has shown not only how little the US can influence events in Egypt, but how little it knows," said Richard Haass, former State Department policy chief and president of the Council on Foreign Relations. That ignorance extended to how much power Mr Mubarak is ceding to his Vice-President.

But that is only the immediate problem. In the longer term, the US must weigh the impact of the crisis on its key interests in the region: containing the spread of radical Islam and fighting terrorism, ensuring the flow of oil, and the security of its key ally Israel.

"In these situations," said Robert Kagan, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, "it's very difficult for the US to get it right. The administration has to be firm that the emergency law must be lifted, and that the opposition must be brought into the government process."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz