There has been no end to the confusion marking the Barack Obama administration’s reaction to the Egypt crisis. It has (inevitably, given the Washington worldview) identified the crisis as one more development in what it has renamed America’s Great War Against Violent Extremism.

The uprising has not been treated as Egypt’s crisis, or one of Arab political society, but a challenge to American peace-enforcement in the Muslim Middle East. The administration has been addressing the Egyptians as if they were American puppets that perversely have taken on life. Most of the world has thought — as the Egyptians themselves do — that the affair fundamentally concerned the Egyptian people and nation, not the United States.

For example, on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates congratulated the Egyptian Army’s conduct during the crisis. “Well done!” he effectively said to the Egyptian generals and officers, as if he was about to pass among them distributing American Good Conduct medals for having conscientiously followed orders.

Obviously, concerned onlookers everywhere have been anxious about the Tahrir Square demonstrations and occupation, and impressed by the army’s cool and impartial conduct in the midst of a situation where police provocation and brutality had worsened violence in the early stages. It would have been entirely appropriate for Gates to express American admiration for the army’s performance. But it is the Egyptian army under Egyptian command (which remains, if the American secretary of defense has failed to notice, that of President Hosni Mubarak), and it has not, so far as known, been placed under American command — nor has the Egyptian government. That is one source of the present problem. Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, after meeting with an influential group of political figures Sunday, released a statement expressing “their absolute rejection of any and all forms of foreign intervention in internal Egyptian affairs.”

Last week, when Frank Wisner was visiting Cairo, it was not unreasonable to think that the fix was in. Washington’s plan, presumably, was that Mubarak would announce that he would not be a candidate for the Egyptian presidency in September. The election would be brought forward. The constitution would be fixed so that Suleiman could legally take power, if elected (as planned). Support from moderate figures in Egyptian society would be cultivated. Washington had already made clear its confidence in Mr. Suleiman, who has been the CIA’s contact man during the War on Terror in matters of rendition and outsourced torture.

The Tahrir Square demonstrators were to be confined to the space that they had commandeered and eased into less conspicuous byways by the army, using tact and avoiding violence (so as not to frighten the tourists). It was assumed that, eventually, the dual influences of restored normality elsewhere in the country, plus the inertia, discouragement and discomfort among the demonstrators, would eventually send them all home. (The size of the gatherings on Tuesday this week suggests that this may be less easy than previously thought).

Meanwhile, the most active figures in the uprising would be convinced to stand down, go abroad on holiday, or, if necessary (who knows?), to “disappear” during the weeks to come. Media attention would be refocused on proposed reforms and possible new political personalities so that a new multiparty parliament and government could be unveiled to appease the Egyptian electorate, limit possible contagion in the region and calm the jittery Israelis.

Then President Mubarak made his speech saying that while he would not run for another presidential term in September, he intended to remain president until that election and made no mention of his son’s possible political ambitions. Opinion in the army and elsewhere sustained him on grounds of honor; it would be humiliating to accept an American dismissal. U.S.-Mubarak relations suddenly turned frigid.

The U.S. position now is that there has to be an “orderly transition.” Neither Mr. Mubarak nor his son should run for office. President Obama declared Tuesday that Egypt’s government transition “must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”

Must? Now?

So much for the current politics of the affair. Another mistake Washington and others have made, the Israelis most of all (reasonably enough). This is not and has never been an Islamist uprising. Religion has not played a significant role in Tunis or in Egypt. In a very wise comment, Ghassan Salame, former Lebanese minister of culture and now dean of the Graduate School of International Affairs at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, observes that time has passed the Islamists by.

They have been obsessed with organizational survival and the war with America, and the evolution of Arab society has left them behind. Education (including women’s education), opportunity and globalism have transformed the young elites of all but the most backward countries. Their problems are not ones for which the Muslim Brotherhood has answers.

Today’s movements of insurrection are defeats for the Islamists, just as much as they are for the authoritarian regimes. The Islamists have lost their moral authority, as have the dictators. These are movements that demand the re-moralization of society, national self-respect, popular representation, an end to corruption and to rulers with $40 billion Swiss bank accounts (Mubarak’s alleged retirement fund). That’s what it’s about — not terrorism or Israel.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2011 Tribune Media Services Inc.


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