Robert Gibbs repeated himself to the point of exhaustion. “Well, let me be clear,” started the White House press secretary. Again, “I want to be clear.” Finally, “I want to be very clear.” Egypt’s future, “is not for our government to determine. That is for the people of Egypt to determine.”
So why did reporters find it hard to believe him?
Clearly the White House doesn’t read The Trench, as Gibbs face-planted into the strategic dilemma trapping America’s response to Mid East revolution. With the opposition gearing up a million protesters to march from Tahrir (Liberation) Square to the presidential palace, the time is quickly approaching to pick a side and stay on it. Soon President Hosni Mubarak will be forced into negotiations or exile, both of which will terminate his 30-year reign.
And while the White House realizes the right and wrong side of history, talk and action have yet to converge.
Seizing on the ambiguity of “orderly transition,” Gibbs spent much of his time engaging skeptical reporters who wondered how Mubarak would interpret this phrase. By backing the will of Egyptians without calling for Mubarak to outright resign - when their first demand is his resignation - the Obama administration has locked itself in a paradox. This halfway response projects the same indecision to Egyptian protesters as it does to U.S. journalists.
But there’s a "clearer" reason for doubting the sincerity of Gibbs, or President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for that matter. Gibbs begins his briefing by announcing, “we're not picking between those on the street and those in the government. As the Secretary of State said yesterday, we're for and have enumerated our concern for the people of Egypt.” Gibbs then responded to all questions about the Muslim Brotherhood with non-commitment.
He must excuse those of us having difficulty in understanding how America could support a free and fair election, and on the other hand pick against Egypt’s main opposition group.
Consider this “free and fair” election that the White House hopes to achieve after an “orderly transition.” Only two months ago a content Obama administration stood relatively silent amid an illegitimate election as Mubarak wiped the Brotherhood out of parliament. Such a vain attempt to clean out the group has proven futile.
Now Gibbs claims, “the United States government does not determine who’s on the ballot,” yet many officials in Washington would rather see the Brotherhood left off. Some are banking on the newly-installed vice president, General Intelligence Service chief Omar Suleiman, to fill Mubarak’s vacuum until a future election. Former CIA agent and current Obama adviser Bruce Riedel went on PBS’s Charlie Rose, another Washington insider, to enunciate the prevailing consensus that elections are necessary.
But too soon “unfortunately” gives the advantage to the “fundamentalists.”
Furthermore, the same officials calling Israel’s shots in the White House are attempting to steer Egypt’s “transition” away from the Brotherhood. Pointing to Hamas as a signpost, Israel and America don’t want to deal with the Brotherhood for five years just because of this revolution, especially as the urgency grows for a two-state solution. In other words, they fear empowering the Palestinians more than Hamas itself.
Although some news organizations have interpreted Gibbs' remarks on the Brotherhood as acceptance, this thinking only tells the end of the story. While America doesn’t proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, Washington does treat the group like a problem rather than a solution. Evasive in his responses, Gibbs says nothing beyond the need to renounce violence and include other elements of Egyptian society. But the Brotherhood has already pledged to do both.
After Gibbs rejects a number of rapidly approaching hypotheticals, one journalist takes a final shot: “Without predicting whether you’ll have to, do you feel that the U.S. could work with the Muslim Brotherhood?”
“Again, I think it’s important, Wendell, that the government of - we do not have contact with them. And we have, as we have throughout the world, standards for that contact. And those are as I dictated a minute ago. And that is adherence to the law, adherence to non-violence, and a willingness to be part of a democratic process, but not use that democratic process to simply instill yourself into power.”
Gibbs should have read the reports of the Brotherhood’s evolving strategy before dishing out non-answers.
Although the Brotherhood has assumed a prominent role in Tuesday’s protests - to both serve its own interests and boost the rally’s numbers - the story before Monday focused on its cool-headed decision-making. By avoiding the revolution’s front, it simultaneously preserved its strength and gave all of Egypt’s opposition freedom to speak, allowing the movement to fully expand. Unlike Washington, the Brotherhood immediately jumped on the right side of history by fueling the revolution from the back rather than the front.
This decision speaks to its non-violent commitment. And having become an equal part in the opposition rather than its face, the Brotherhood also contradicted the notion that it will exclude other groups from power.
Rather than spearhead the opposition, the Brotherhood has side-stepped this duty in favor of Mohamed ElBaradei, who was nominated on Sunday as the opposition’s chief negotiator. The two maintain a stable alliance, and ElBaradei came to the Brotherhood’s defense in a series of U.S. interviews. Though ElBaradei isn’t the most popular man on the streets, he provides the opposition with their best candidate at the national and internationally level. The Muslim Brotherhood has even announced its support for ElBaradei as a transitional president if Mubarak was toppled, as ElBaradei has the most weight to displace him.
Helmi Gazzar, the Brotherhood's district chief in northern Cairo, explained, "What we want is what the people want; right now we should have a completely different regime. We should have freedom and free elections. We respect Mr. Baradei. He has the most potential.”
The respect is more or less mutual. Ziad el-Alami, a senior aide for ElBaradei and a human-rights lawyer, told reporters, "I have some fears about the Muslim Brotherhood and their intentions. But the situation is bigger than all of us now. You need them in the streets.” A symbiotic relationship, ElBaradei gains the Brotherhood’s street credibility and organization while the Brotherhood receives a mask to cover its face.
Washington can try to stop it, but denying ElBaradei isn’t an option to begin with. And he has chosen to send Mubarak packing.
All of the Brotherhood’s recent decisions lead to a final consideration that, as a result of Egypt’s broader revolution, it may be undergoing a phase of modernization. For decades the Brotherhood has served as the opposition’s sword and shield, striking out to manifest those opposed to the “secular” Egyptian government. Now the Brotherhood isn’t the only voice, and thus doesn’t have to yell so loud.
Shrouded in Egyptian nationalism rather than Islamic fundamentalism, this isn’t the Brotherhood of old.
So how does America reconcile a “free and fair election” with trying to isolate Egypt’s main opposition group? It’s impossible, hence the White House’s grudging preparation to accept the inevitable. It would if it could and it's still trying, but Washington cannot can’t stop the Brotherhood from gaining a new level of power in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Muqtada al-Sadr, Washington cannot isolate their political bases from representation while calling for national inclusion. And histories cannot be erased. Founded in 1928 and opposing Western-enabled totalitarianism for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood numbers 600,000 strong with another few millions sympathizers. Mubarak just uprooted its seats in parliament through imprisonment and abduction, yet here the Brotherhood stands, ready to acquire more power than ever.
MB isn’t going anywhere.
The White House would be crazy to believe it can succeed where Mubarak has failed. The ambiguity and contradictions surrounding the Brotherhood rivals Mubarak’s status, and must be immediately resolved in order to construct a functional U.S. policy. Neither Mubarak, America, nor Israel have the strength to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood. Containment hasn’t worked well either. Joining appears to be the last option, as ElBaradei won’t rush to close off Washington. Despite a historic animosity for America, largely due to its support of Mubarak and Israel, advancing the correct policy could secure a working respect from the Brotherhood.
U.S. officials claim they want to be on the right side of history. The Muslim Brotherhood is already there.