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The Egyptian Tightrope
Updated 2/1: Another reason to love this man.
we stand for universal values, including the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the freedom to access information. Once more, we’ve seen the incredible potential for technology to empower citizens and the dignity of those who stand up for a better future. And going forward, the United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Egypt and around the world.
This is skillful mediation as well as statecraft. In the foreign policy context, the president is committing himself to one of the protesters' rallying cries. Then, Obama throws Mubarak a bone by not calling for his immediate resignation giving him some time to solve it himself. The ramifications of this declared "value/right" to freedom to access information are vast, but its interesting he didn't say they had a right to exchange information. In this context, its not just another speech. Its the president of the United States speaking in his capacity of leader of the free world. I'm not aware of another such declaration. The right wing will source it to the UN and all hell will break forth from the nostrils of Glenn Beck oblivious of the fact that he directly benefits from such a right.
Updated 2/1: Obama reiterates a request for an "orderly transition". Mubarak sez he might not run again but he ain't a going nowhere. Trouble is, the million man crowd doesn't trust Mubarak to keep his promises. Perhaps they're cognizant of what happened to these rebels by Henry VIII, who also gave assurances if they'd just go home.
Its a conundrum. The west probably needs Mubarak to keep stability and get that election, but the crowd's goal is to get rid of him. With oil climbing above $100/barrel because of threat posed to the 2 million barrels going through Suez daily, the pressure mounts. The good news is that other countries are taking steps to stem the rebellion tide lest it spill over. Democracy is breaking out everywhere.
America and its western allies have seemingly acknowledged they have a Mubarak problem. After Mubarak's speech to the nation last week, you could have predicted the outcome. Protesters won't settle for anything less than declaring free and fair elections for which Mubarak would not stand as a candidate. His removal is job one. And western leaders have good cause to be concerned. Egypt, as the most populous Arab nation, is at the center of the west's entire Middle East policy. The west doesn't want to be seen as condoning an authoritarian regime. Given the billions in aid Egypt receives to keep peace with Israel, we've got plenty to be concerned about. Beyond that, we have a human rights issue.
Egypt has a torture problem.
A report released by Human Rights Watch documents how Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government effectively condones police abuse by failing to ensure that law enforcement officers who are accused of torture are investigated and criminally prosecuted. HRW describes torture as "an endemic problem in Egypt." According to HRW, ending police abuse—and the cycle of impunity for those crimes—is a driving element behind the massive popular demonstrations in Egypt this past week.
Unfortunately it gets much stickier. A few days ago, Mubarak appointed Egypt's first new vice president in thirty years, Omar Suleiman, in an effort to accede to demands for him to go bye-bye, setting Suleiman up to succeed. Who is he?
[S]ince 1993 Suleiman has headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service. In that capacity, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.
Indeed, he is at the center of Bush's efforts to confirm his vaunted Iraq-al Qaeda link, necessary to convince Americans to declare war on Iraq in the wake of 9/11.
Suleiman was the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of an Al Qaeda suspect known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi. The Libi case is particularly controversial, in large part because it played a role in the building of the case for the American invasion of Iraq.
In late November, 2001, Pakistani authorities captured Libi and turned him over to U.S. officials at Bagram Air Base, in Afghanistan, for questioning. There he was questioned by two F.B.I. agents from New York who had worked on terrorism cases for years. They believed they were making great headway—getting valuable, actionable intelligence from Libi. But back in Washington, a custody battle broke out between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. over who should get to lead his interrogation. Suskind writes,
The debate went up to [F.B.I. director Robert] Mueller and [C.I.A. director George] Tenet, and Tenet—appealing directly to both Bush and Cheney—prevailed. Al-Libi was bound and blindfolded for a trip to Cairo, where he’d be handed over to Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief and a friend of Tenet’s.
What happened to Libi in Egypt, while in the custody of the Egyptian intelligence service, is documented in detail in a bipartisan report released in 2006 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. According to the report, Libi later told the C.I.A. that the Egyptian authorities grew dissatisfied with his level of cooperation, so they locked him in a tiny cage for eighty hours. Then they took him out, knocked him over, and punched him for fifteen minutes. The Egyptian officials were pressing Libi, who knew Bin Laden personally, to confirm the Bush Administration’s contention that there were links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. In particular, the Egyptians wanted Libi to confirm that the Iraqis were in the process of giving Al Qaeda biological and chemical weapons. In pushing this line of inquiry, the Egyptians appear to have been acting in accordance with the wishes of the U.S., which wanted to document its case for going to war against Iraq. Under duress, Libi eventually gave in. Details from his confession went into the pivotal speech that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to the United Nations in Feburary of 2003, making the case for war.
Several years later, however, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned up no such weapons of mass destruction, or ties between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Libi recanted. When the F.B.I. later asked him why he had lied, he blamed the brutality of the Egyptian intelligence service. As Michael Isikoff and David Corn first reported in their book, “Hubris,” Libi explained, “They were killing me,” and that, “I had to tell them something.”
The west has a vested interest to hasten Mubarak's exodus from Egypt. And they need to do it quickly under a plan that insures democratic institutions are available for Egyptians to have self determination before anti-western sentiments sour them on democratic institutions. Considering our history of supporting Mubarak, helping them in getting him out the door might be the best play.