By Mitch Potter, Toronto Star, February 2, 2011
While some Obama officials favour newly named Vice-President Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s long-time intelligence chief, as a possible successor there appears to be a deepening understanding that Egyptians would reject Suleiman if given the chance.
“What the U.S. isn’t saying publicly is that it’s putting its power behind the generals,” a source who was at the table told the Star.
“The goal is to stack the deck in favour of the status quo — a scenario that removes Mubarak yet is otherwise more about continuity than change. But the administration acknowledges that if Omar Suleiman is a candidate for president, there is no way the election will be free, fair and democratic.
“At this point, Hosni Mubarak is president in name only. Omar Suleiman is the power of the regime, with all its repressive elements still intact. And the White House acknowledges his candidacy would not meet the standards everyone expects.”
Attendees to the meeting said White House officials expressed reluctance for direct U.S. engagement with Egyptian demonstrators. But others in attendance warned that failure to engage runs the risk of an outcome “perceived as a kind of elite pact between the U.S. and the Egyptian government. If there isn’t any serious buy-in by demonstrators, you run the risk of creating a bunch of Mohammed Attas (the 9/11 terrorist). And you lose the only leverage you have to steer the Egyptian government toward the reforms you are advocating.”
Rejecting Suleiman in favour of the military generals, is one option. Such a move would put the U.S. government on the side of those it thinks have the support and respect of the masses of people. That, too, may be a risky option. None of us can help but recall the words and actions of President George W. Bush in Iraq..."to bring democracy to the Middle East and to rid the region of a hated dictator" (not spoken but also appropriate, "who was once our ally").
Removing dictators who were once allies, but who have lost the confidence and the trust of the people, (who have really moved beyond their fears of repression by that dictator), is not as simple as siding with the military, in a vain attempt to appear to be on the side of the protesters. As one young protester in Tahrir Square put it, "The Americans always ride a winner and they do not care about the people!"
If the White House is not conscious, fully conscious of the fact and all of its implications, that the United States is the hated enemy of most of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who have been marching through the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, then it will "blow" a serious situation into a potential blood bath. So far the Egyptian people, including the army, have held themselves in considerable restraint.
The U.S. hand, anywhere in the situation, could tip a delicate balance into a cauldron, simply by making the U.S. a direct target of the anger and contempt of the demonstrators. Big pockets filled with cash will not buy the precise solution that the U.S. government might want. That may have worked with the Mubarak's in the past, but it will not satisfy the ordinary people in their legitimate pursuit of justice, equality, dignity employment, decent housing, money for food at prices they can afford.
If the U.S. is perceived even to hint at a preferred candidate in the elections, that will be the kiss of death, not only for that candidate, but also for the U.S.
The irony here is that, just as in the incongruity of U.S. bomber airplanes and missiles fighting terrorists armed with I.E.D.'s, the U.S. economic and political power is out of touch with the reality of the street...and while that power may be able to pave the way to discussions, it will not cut it, in shaping the future. And that limit on U.S. power may be the most treasured development to eventually come from all of this chaos.
And while fear of an army of Mohammed Atta's generated from the masses may be helping to restrain the U.S. government, it may not be enough to prevent their heavy hand and their usual heavy footprint on the delicate and fragile and potentially explosive situation in the Middle East.
Thank God it is Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who are leading the U.S. government's evolving position in this most complicated and fragile drama and not John McCain and Sarah Palin, who could have won the 2008 election!