Marwan Bishara
Marwan Bishara
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
Time to change Obama Mideast team
Marwan Bishara argues it is time for changing Obama's Mideast team and Washington's policy towards Egypt.
Last Modified: 08 Feb 2011 19:04
Pro-democracy protesters in Egpyt are seeking president Hosni Mubarak's resignation [AFP]

There seems to be lack of clarity on the part of the Obama administration regarding Egypt.

Where does Washington stand today?

Caught in the headlights, the Obama administration has been playing catch up with the revolution since its beginning.

It started by taking a cautious position underlining the strategic relationship with the regime while showing sympathy to the demonstrators, then equating between the dictator and the dictated (refusing to spell out the D word), asking 'both sides' to show restraint, as if the peaceful demonstrators under attack by the regime's mobs were equally violent to the regime's security forces.

When the revolution showed no signs of waning - it rather expanded throughout Egypt's cities- the Obama administration called for peaceful and orderly transition starting "now". 

Soon after however, it adopted a more passive approach, embracing the new vice-president's management of the transition, as if entrusting the fox with the hen house.

In the process, it seems that the security and the military arm of the regime regrouped and rebounded under Omar Suleiman's new leadership, that made certain cosmetic changes including marginalising some of the political faces of the ruling party and the regime.

How do you explain the surprise and fumbling of the Obama administration over the last two weeks?

Washington has treated the democratic revolution as a problem or a crisis that begs for carefully implemented solution, instead of supporting it as an opportunity for badly needed change both in Egypt and in US strategy towards the region.

The assumed discrepancy between Washington's short term interests with the regime of Hosni Mubarak and America's long declared ideals of freedom and democracy, have to a large degree paralysed the administration and deterred it from taking a daring long-term look that sees ideals and interests as mutually reinforcing.

Instead it remained vague towards supporting the transition, though it disagreed with its special envoy to Egypt, former ambassador Frank Wisner, who openly supported preserving Mubarak on top of the regime as it moves forward.

It's rather peculiar that president Obama would send the Mubarak regime's lobbyist in Washington to lobby the Egyptian dictator!

The longer the Obama administration takes to regain the initiative and declare unconditional support for democratic change, the greater would be the negative impact on its relationship with the Arab world.

That begins with insisting that any dialogue must aim at changing the regime not reforming it.

South Africa-like dialogue to end the Apartheid regime is the way to go.

What should the Obama administration do to avoid such fiascos?

For the last three decades, Washington has embraced a so-called realist approach that embraced authoritarian regimes of the like of Mubarak as clients and allies in it fight against Communism in the 1980s and Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s and in its global war on terror over the last decade.

The Arabs have been largely invisible to Washington that saw the region as unstable source of fanaticism.

President Obama, like his predecessors, has been short changed by predominantly senior pro-Israeli or Zionist advisers who approached the region through the prism of Israel with little or no knowledge of the Arab world. That needs to change. The first to go should be Dennis Ross, the Midle East aide most associated with two decades of US diplomatic failures in the Middle East.

To paraphrase what one liberal [Jewish] commentator put it at the outset of the new administration, Obama should take note and name a number of Arab-American and Iranian-American scholars who understand the Arab and Muslim world to prominent roles, and beware of the team that has taken him - and the region - back to the future.

Obama said during the campaign that "an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel" can't be "the measure of our friendship with Israel".

Neither should it be the measure of friendship with Egypt.

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