Over the course of 10 excruciating days, the White House has inched toward calling for the resignation of embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. A likely scenario is now one in which newly-installed vice president Omar Suleiman, with the support of the Egyptian military, would lead a caretaker government until new elections take place, perhaps as soon as September.
But this assumes Mubarak is ready to let go of the reins. The drama in Cairo may yet have another act or two to go.
This is Egypt's second war of attrition; the first being post-1967 war hostilities between Israel and Egypt until 1970. The protesters don't want to back down until Mubarak leaves. Mubarak, for his part, thinks he can tire out the protesters. He knows that many residents of Cairo simply want their lives back, however bleak they may have been. Lines for bread and milk, road closures, curfews, and gunshots at night have made this a grueling ordeal.
For the protesters, this has been no picnic, either. Mubarak's thugs have battered and exhausted them. But as one Egyptian friend put it to me, "never underestimate the stubbornness of my people."
The Obama administration, for its part, is not eager to let this crisis play out much longer. The longer chaos reigns, the more opportunity the Muslim Brotherhood has to exploit it. Politically, this has not made the president look good either. Obama's foes describe this as his "Carter moment," referring to the Islamic revolution that cost the United States its alliance with Iran in 1979.
The problem is that Obama does not have much leverage. If he seeks to bring about an immediate end to the Mubarak regime, his only play is to cut America's considerable aid to Egypt. Since most of the money is pumped into the Egyptian military industrial complex to finance hardware like F-16 fighters and M1 tanks, such a threat could finally prompt the Egyptian military to take control and ensure a peaceful democratic transition.
Egypt's military may be our best bet, but the move is not without significant risk. If the U.S. cuts aid and Mubarak finds a way to hang on, we can count on the Russians, the Chinese, or others to fill the void. Indeed, the move could effectively sever U.S. ties with a long-time ally, and destroy our significant political, military and financial capital there.
Washington's best way forward is not to prompt a dramatic international showdown, but to convey its wishes to the Egyptian military in private. The Egyptian officer corps, which the U.S. has trained over the years, understands American concerns. Obama must prompt them to navigate this mess and find a solution in short order.
As the U.S. government tries to dig out of this mess, it's natural to wonder whether this was an intelligence failure. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein apparently thinks so. But, if Egyptian intelligence had no clue that this political tsunami was on its way, how was U.S. intelligence to know?
This is more a failure to plan than to predict. When Mubarak traveled to Germany for surgery in March last year, he returned emaciated and weak. At the ripe old age of 82, few thought he would last long. Did the intelligence community, the State Department and the National Security Council have contingency plans? Did it start working with shadow leaders? The answers to these important questions should begin to surface in the months ahead.
In the meantime, Capitol Hill might also look into why we cut aid to many Egyptian democracy programs in recent years. Had we given the Egyptian people a sense that change would come gradually, the anger that has exploded onto the streets of Cairo in recent days might have been more easily contained.