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Analysis: Obama’s Big Middle East Moment

Michael H. Cottman,

Michael Cottman 02/03/2011

President Barack Obama, known for his quiet diplomacy among foreign dignitaries, essentially told President Hosni Mubarak that he doesn’t have to go home, but he does have to get the hell out of Egypt.

“An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful,” Obama said at the White House Tuesday. “And it must begin now.”

Nothing has come easy for Obama since he took office in 2009. He was forced to take ownership of a devastating economic crisis that has financially crippled millions of Americans across the county and created a 9.5 percent unemployment rate – a 15.3 jobless rate for black Americans.

Obama’s leadership in the White House is being tested again, but this time the crisis is more than 6,000 miles away in Egypt – and parts of the Middle East – where greedy government regimes are being threatened by angry, underpaid workers demanding to be heard.

In Cairo, it’s complete pandemonium. Three people were killed, and more than 600 people were injured Wednesday when mobs of pro-government and anti-government demonstrators clashed in the streets, some fighting while riding camels and horses and many throwing rocks, molotov cocktails and wielding razor blades, knives and machetes in the melee.

The uprising, now in its 10th day, has completely shut down Cairo’s banks and businesses and did not appear to subside, even though Mubarak told Egyptians that he will not run for re-election and will leave office in September.

It’s not soon enough. Obama wants Mubarak out of office today, and no doubt he’s clearly frustrated that Mubarak wants to hang on for another seven months.

There’s no question that Mubarak has to go; his 30-year, self-indulged reign must come to an end. While Mubarak has become wealthy and powerful, his underserved constituency has become poorer and powerless. Forty percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

Obama, whose father was Kenyan, has an ancestral connection to Africa and understands America’s role in complex conflict resolution in countries where civil unrest and anti-government turmoil are often a way of life. And so, Obama must do some serious soul searching to help resolve the escalating violence in Egypt and restore order during an inevitable transfer of power.

So, what should Obama do? He could start by telling Mubarak that he’s immediately cutting off the $1.3 billion a year that the United States sends to Egypt to support its military. Perhaps if Egypt’s top military commanders get word that the U.S. financial well has run dry, they might agree to help escort Mubarak off the premises.

Over the past few days, Obama has tried to nudge Mubarak out of office – which obviously didn’t work – so now Obama might need to abandon the conciliatory back-room diplomacy and push Mubarak out of power. What we know for sure is that Mubarak only responds to an iron fist.  After all, this is the same dictator who reportedly bragged that he holds a “PhD in stubbornness.”

To get Mubarak’s attention, Obama may have to embrace a more unconventional concept offered by gangster Al Capone, who once said, “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”

Sources said Obama spoke with Mubarak and privately urged the 82-year-old Egyptian president to step down now, and last week, Obama sent a special envoy to Cairo to deliver the message face to face. Obama said Mubarak “recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday said the events in Egypt are unfolding so quickly that the Obama administration has teams working around the clock to monitor the crisis in Egypt and respond to developments through the media and behind the scenes.

Obama has a rare opportunity to offer his leadership across the Arab world – including five Arab countries, all allies of the U.S. – where governments are faced with political and social upheaval as a result of low wages and abject poverty.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II fired his government this week after demonstrators have been challenging his regime. In Yemen, the government tried to quell new protests by offering concessions to the opposition. In Syria, demonstrators are calling for a “day of rage” this weekend against President Bashar al-Assad. And in Tunisia, the army was called as a show of force to ease tensions among residents.

Obama, who started his career as a young community organizer in Chicago, is sympathetic to the protesters who are challenging Mubarak and other Arab leaders who have often put their own personal interests above the needs of Arab families.

“To the people of Egypt,” Obama said, “particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices.”

Today, Obama is faced with a formidable challenge to help organize a larger, more global community – an Arab world that could benefit from the wisdom of America’s first black president, a former activist who charged into the White House vowing to radically overhaul the United States government to better serve its most vulnerable citizens.

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