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01.29.11

Inside the White House's Egypt Scramble

As protests erupted in Egypt, Washington struggled desperately to find the right response to the crisis. John Barry reports on the administration’s decision-making.

As protests erupted in Egypt, Washington struggled desperately to find the right response to the crisis. John Barry reports on the administration’s decision-making. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt revolt.

For three days straight, as the Cairo crisis gathered momentum, they had hardly left their desks. Now, huddled in the big office of their boss—one of the administration policy-makers trying to calibrate the U.S. response to the unfolding drama—the advisers watched Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s first statement. Two television sets were running, one showing CNN and the other a satellite feed from Al Jazeera. Someone had popped popcorn in a microwave. In the old days, their boss reflected, he would have ordered in pizza, but since 9/11 the ever-expanding security precautions had shut down deliveries of take-out.

Gallery: Demonstrations in Egypt

The mood was buoyant, as revealed by interviews with several officials involved in the ongoing administration debate that provide at least a preliminary glimpse of their concerns as Egypt spiraled toward chaos.

Had there been an office pool, the boss thought, the favored bet would have been that Mubarak was about to “do an LBJ” and repeat what President Lyndon Johnson did in 1968 in the face of a wave of protests: announce he would not stand in the upcoming presidential election. Certainly, Mubarak’s departure would present the U.S. with a new set of daunting challenges, but at least it would quiet the Egyptian streets and buy some time for mediation.

But as the Egyptian president spoke—a couple of the Arabic speakers in the room providing translation—the optimism died. Mubarak announced he was dismissing his government; he talked of reforms. But he also made clear his determination to stay on. There were groans, shaking of heads. This wasn’t going to be enough to halt the tumult in half of Egypt’s cities, and, more disconcertingly, Mubarak’s assertion that the demonstrations were “part of a bigger plot to shake the stability” of Egypt sounded ominous. The Egyptian president had called out the Army on Friday; now his speech sounded as if he was preparing to use it. President Obama’s Middle East advisers believed that if Egyptian security forces opened fire on demonstrators, the country would likely explode. As Mubarak ended his address, someone in the room voiced the thought on everyone’s mind: “Well, what do we do now?”

In the White House, that judgment was swiftly made. Mubarak’s speech was a climactic moment: It was time for President Obama to act.

Throughout the week, as the crisis gathered storm in Egypt, the administration had otherwise been slow to react, seemingly always one step behind events. This was partly because neither the U.S. intelligence community nor diplomats on the ground foresaw how swiftly the protests in Egypt would gather momentum—even if everyone realized that virtually the entire Arab world is a tinder box of pent-up frustration, with despotic regimes unable to meet the needs of, especially, their youth. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself put it last month, in a speech in Doha that now seems uncannily prescient, Arab leaders would face growing unrest, extremism, and even rebellion unless they reformed “corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” It was the starkest warning ever delivered by a senior American official, and a message brought home a few days later when Tunisia erupted in revolt.

There were groans, shaking of heads. This wasn’t going to be enough to halt the tumult in half of Egypt’s cities, and, more disconcertingly, Mubarak’s assertion that the demonstrations were “part of a bigger plot to shake the stability” of Egypt sounded ominous.

Yet, when it came to Egypt, the tone was different, and as the protests in Cairo gathered momentum, Clinton’s initial public comments were a mixture of fact and hopeful fiction. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” she said, an assessment that didn’t take long to be overtaken by events.

Whether Mubarak indeed was committed to responding to “the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people” remained an open question. Clinton’s statement, however, had been carefully calibrated, coming after the first round of what proved to be an exhausting week of discussions by President Obama and his top officials.

From the start, according to sources privy to the discussions, talks revolved around two objectives: how to cajole Mubarak to respond to the demonstrations, while, at the same time, not saying anything publicly that could be taken as American approval of the forcible overthrow of Arab regimes. But as the demonstrations grew in intensity, that balance became increasingly fraught. The demonstrators were, after all, demanding human and political rights to which the United States is committed, but which Mubarak showed no sign of granting.

After much discussion, it was decided that President Obama would not try to speak directly to Mubarak. According to an informed source, the assessment was that president-to-president intervention should be held in reserve as a last recourse. Besides, any exchange with Mubarak would require Obama to say whether he supported Mubarak’s continued rule. And the president was in a bind: He couldn’t bluntly say no. On the other hand, Egyptian authorities would instantly broadcast any expression of support as proof that Washington was backing Mubarak’s hold on power. (Shown this article for review, the White House said: "There's nothing we'd comment on here at the moment.")

So the administration tried to reach Mubarak by other means. The Cairo embassy reached out to his advisers. Other Arab leaders were enlisted. Across the region, the events in Cairo were viewed with mounting concern by other governments. The longer their television screens were filled with those scenes of protest, the likelier they were to trigger comparable uprisings in other capitals. The administration’s message was clear: for your own sake, persuade Mubarak he has to quell the revolt by offering concessions.

By Thursday, though, the Cairo embassy was reporting that Mubarak was mobilizing the Army. Everyone knew that Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, would see the biggest demonstrations yet. Mubarak’s mobilization of the military could only mean that he was set on suppression. There was a real risk of bloodshed—and the judgment both of analysts in Washington and of Arab leaders in other capitals was that killings on any scale could ignite a firestorm—not only in Egypt but across the region.

Taking advantage of a pre-arranged Q&A session on YouTube, Obama warned: “ The government has to be careful about not resorting to violence.” Mubarak, he said, needed to be “moving ahead on reform—political reform, economic reform”.

Whether Obama’s warning influenced Mubarak’s actions is unclear. The Army did roll into the streets of Cairo and other cities on Friday. But it did not shoot; and, on Friday evening, Mubarak appeared on television for the first time in the crisis.

Meanwhile at the Pentagon, a high-powered delegation of Egyptian military leaders, including the armed forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, cut short a scheduled week-long visit after only a few hours, departing instead for the airport. Their Pentagon hosts wished them well, with careful expressions of hope that a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Egypt would permit the continuation of the U.S. military’s long-standing relationship with Egypt’s armed forces. (Since the U.S. funds the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year, the message was clear.)

Administration officials suspect—or, at any rate, hope—that Obama’s blunt declaration forced Mubarak’s hand, prompting the Egyptian president to address his nation. What Mubarak offered in his televised speech, however, was “too little, too late,” as someone at that popcorn-eating gathering said. There was no prospect, Obama’s advisers believed, that Mubarak’s vague promises of reform would pacify the streets.

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Obama and his top officials, including Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon among them, concluded that the time had come for Obama to talk directly to Mubarak. And Mubarak’s address to the Egyptian people had given Obama the opening he wanted. The White House organized the call.

It was an intervention that dramatically—and publicly—escalated the American involvement in the Egyptian crisis. In an address from the White House, Obama outlined what he had told Mubarak, putting the administration unequivocally behind the demonstrators’ demands. “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” Obama said in his speech. “And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” The president also warned both sides against violence but his message was clear: “When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech, and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.” And, said Obama, “we are committed to working with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people—all quarters—to achieve” those goals.

It was a breath-taking pledge, with Obama coming close to making the U.S. the guarantor that Mubarak will act. In Egypt, his reference to “all quarters” will be taken to suggest that the U.S. will even reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, an unprecedented step.

In the last week, the administration has come a long way.

John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national security correspondent in July 1985. He has reported extensively on American intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia and efforts for peace in the Middle East. In 2002, he co-wrote "The War Crimes of Afghanistan" (8/26/02 cover) which won a National Headliner Award and was a finalist in the ASME National Magazine Awards for public service and a finalist in the SPJ Deadline Club Award for investigative reporting.