Mubarak needs a shove -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Feb 01, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column, For Egypt's Mubarak, push has come to shove, in which Gene writes: "The Obama administration has done a creditable job of gently edging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak toward some sort of gilded exile. Now it's time to push. Hard."

Hello, everyone. Welcome, and let's dive right in. Today's column was about the extraordinary events in Egypt; I suggest it's time for the White House to give Mubarak a big shove, though our influence is clearly limited. Since the piece was written, democracy fever has spread to Jordan. Nobody seems to know where all of this leads, if anywhere. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Florida threw out the whole health care reform law. The record in the courts is now two yes, two no. Let's get started.

Hi Gene, your piece was great as usual, but I had a question about the Post's general coverage of Egypt. What's up with all the revisionist op-eds praising President Bush? It seems like neoconservatives have been given a lot of space over the last few days to partially rewrite his legacy on the Middle East. The Outlook piece (whose author will be chatting today as well) looks like the worst of the bunch.

That's what the neocons believe, and I disagree with their analysis (you might have guessed that) but obviously support their right to be heard. I'm not sure what point they're making. Did Bush push for democracy in Egypt in a way that made Mubarak even moderately uncomfortable? No, he didn't. Is this the fruit of Bush's "freedom agenda"? Well, I seem to recall that his manner of bringing freedom to Iraq was to invade and occupy the country. I'm not aware of a democratic flowering that we've witnessed in Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, or any of the Arab nations that we consider our allies -- except now, in Egypt, and tomorrow, who knows where? I'm also not aware of the crowds in Cairo shouting slogans of praise for George W. Bush.

Gene, do you believe that the uprising throughout the Arab world will actually lead to more and more upheaval? Could the Iranians be reinvigorated to beat the Arab nations to a free democracy? Could this cascade into Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia?

I believe the Iranian government looks at these developments with satisfaction, because anything that destabilizes the major Arab nations strengthens the Iranians' hand (in their view). I'm also not sure that the contagion will spread to Iran. But the Jordanian royal family has already made a preemptive strike, the Syrian leader is talking about reform, and the Saudis are doubtless extremely nervous about all this messy, inconvenient democracy that seems to be breaking out.

Gene, I've read several reports and opinions concerning the possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Instead of welcoming open, free elections, regardless of their outcomes, we seem to be in stalled in the idea that democracy is good, so long as it's pro-American. Don't we as a nation need to shed our caveats in order to openly support all forms of democratic revolution?

It would be naive, I think, to imagine that an Egyptian government led by the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to further U.S. interests in the region. I've been to Egypt but I'm not an expert. The experts I trust don't accept the premise that it's inevitable, or even likely, that the Muslim Brotherhood would end up leading a democratic Egypt. My view is that the time for Mubarak to go, and for the transition to begin, is now. The protest movement is broad-based and mostly secular; from the U.S. point of view, this is as good as it gets. The longer Mubarak holds on, the more time the Brotherhood will have to try to assume leadership of the movement -- and, ultimately, of the country.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen just released a statement that only political parties supporting Israel should be allowed to participate in an Egyptian election, if held. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen is an elected U.S. representative. What does that tell us about Americans and our notion of Democracy?

Not much, I hope. But it says a lot about her.

Aren't you being a little overly dramatic when it comes to the BrotherHood? They're more modern, the would hold a mere 20-30% of a free election, they hate Bin Laden Inc., their not anti-American. The only pitfall is they have a hatred for Israel policy, in which I could relate. So why the over-exaggerated fear?

The Muslim Brotherhood is not the Taliban. I don't think they would win a majority in a free and fair election -- not now, at least -- but they might do better than 30 percent. And the MB's stance toward Israel would obviously be a huge problem for U.S. policymakers.

With this ruling now made, do you think it will invigorate the waning GoP movement to repeal the health care reform legislation, or did they check that box with their "symbolic" vote to repeal it? Is it just a matter of the decision going to the Supreme Court? How will the Obama administration navigate it?

I don't think the court ruling changes the political calculus much. The Supreme Court will make the final decision. In the meantime, the administration will proceed with implementation and the Republicans will proceed with their efforts to thwart implementation.

So if you are Hosni Mubarak, what possible road does he think he has to keeping things as they were? What's his own idea of the end game?

Mubarak cannot rationally think that everything can go back to the way it was, but obviously I have no idea whether he's thinking rationally or not. In my experience, dictators have a really hard time grasping the concept "end game."

A couple of week's ago you wrote here that the growing consensus was in favor of the constitutionality of Obamacare. Really prescient, Eugene. Get a new crystal ball!

No, I didn't. I believe it's constitutional, though. Two federal judges have ruled that it is, and two have ruled that it isn't. The Supremes will decide.

Rep. Lleana Ros-Lehtinen said US aid should be contingent on groups participating in the election that recognize the peace agreements existing between Egypt and Israel. You may agree or disagree, but this is materially different from the earlier submitter stated, and that you accepted.

Not really. Imagine there was a third party in this country -- call it the Tea Party -- that opposed a treaty, free trade agreement or other international pact that a previous U.S. administration and Congress had approved. Should that party be ineligible to participate in our elections? Democracy is messy, and sometimes risky.

Hi Gene- Wow the Brotherhood is getting some love from your chatters!!!! Can Hosni stay in Egypt if he is no longer president, or does he have to fly away if no longer in control?

I'd get out of Dodge, if I were he.

Tunisiams overthrew their tyrant, now Egyptians are trying to oust theirs. Any word on what Muamar Ghaddafi (sp?) is doing to try to prevent the same in Libya? I recall that the he and the US semi-made up several years ago, so will the US support him in an attempted coup?

The longtime, Superfly-dressing Libyan strongman should be looking over his shoulder, I think. But I'm having trouble imagining him as a democratic reformer.

Not so sure. Just because Egypt manages a peaceful overthrow of its dictatorship, that does not mean it is going to become democratic. I sure hope so, but that is far from certain.

Nothing is certain. But I do believe that democracy is what Egyptians want.

Eugene: Do you think now that we have divided leadership in congress, that the president will give up any further progressive legislation until after the 2012 election? And if so, do you think that if/when he is re-elected in 2012, that he will then be able to offer more to his liberal base, or his he truly a centrist politician?

His ability to enact a progressive program is limited, if not erased, by a Republican-controlled House. If/when reelected, his ability to satisfy the base will depend in part on the makeup of Congress. But presidents always are less constrained in their second terms.

Contrary to the Bush cabal that's trying to re-write history, I have a very bad feeling about what type of government might be elected in Egypt. We screamed for elections in Palestine , only to poo poo the results. I fear the same will happen in Egypt. Wouldn't that be ironic considering that Egypt was one of the countries to poo poo the results of the Palestinian elections?

Ironic, indeed. One bad thing about dictatorships (out of many bad things) is that they don't bother to build support for their foreign policy, since they don't worry overmuch about public opinion. I belive, for example, that Mubarak could have made a good case that his policy toward Israel and Palestine provided benefits for Egyptians. But when he departs, sooner or later, he will not have built popular support for his policies.


This just in -- MSNBC says Mubarak is to address the nation soon.

Thanks for your measured analysis, compared to which I think Richard Cohen's is way too influenced by fear of damage to Israel. Several Jewish groups (J Street, Tikkun) are celebrating the rise of democracy in Egypt. It's embarrassing to me that defenders of Israel have to defend a dictator in Egypt. The failure to forsee the popular uprising is nicely address on the same page by Mr. Gerson, who is usually quite conservative.

I disagree strongly with Richard's column. It's beautifully written and vigorously argued -- in the formal sense, a great column -- but I believe it's flat wrong. It is possible that a highly problematic, Islamist government would emerge in Egypt, but I truly believe that's unlikely. Richard argues that we should move slowly, but I believe that's absolutely the wrong thing to do. Right now, the democracy movement is broad-based and fundamentally secular. A transition now would relegate the Muslim Brotherhood to the margins of a new government. But if Mubarak hangs on, and everyone goes sullenly back to work, and things drag out for months, the Brotherhood will have plenty of time to build -- and will be able to capitalize on the disappointment many Egyptians will feel at not having gotten rid of the Pharaoh.  The idea that the U.S. is keeping Mubarak in power will take hold. You want an Islamist regime in Cairo? Let this joyous moment gradually turn sour, and you'll be more likely to get it.

If Mubarak follows your sage advice and "gets out of Dodge," where do you think he'd go?

Saudi Arabia would be my top candidate for his exile.

I'm sorry, but I have to agree with the second commenter. The Rep isn't saying who should be eligible in the election, just that US aid isn't a given depending on the result.

I see your point. We can give or withhold aid as we choose. If the new government wants to go to war with Israel, for example, obviously we're not going to help them with additional military aid.

Palin recently argued, in her uniquely inelegant and factually incorrect fashion, that the Soviets fell because of the space race and that Obama would lead us down the same path (though he was NOT reinvigorating the space race). Her statement begs the question - If the Soviets fell because of the 'space race,' then why don't we credit JFK with their fall instead of Reagan? Do you know if she has 'advisors' or does she wing it most of the time? I have a hard time believing that there could possibly be more than one person who holds the same 'ideas' and advises her on articulating them...

I have heard Republican political operatives use the word "uncoachable" to describe Palin.

By throwing out the peace treaty, you are throwing them under the bus for something that is not their fault. We supplied Egypt with weapons, so we should make sure those weapons are not used to attack another nation. That is a reasonable request. It seems the left always loves peace, except when it concerns Israel being safe from terrorist and other countries. its why Jews are fleeing your party.

Let me be clear. Of course I believe in Israel's right to exist. (I also believe, by the way, that the continuing occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is wrong.) And I believe it's untenable to take the position, as PM Netanyahu basically has, that democracy is great everywhere except in the Arab states.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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