Hey America, Can You Spare Some REAL Change?
Vice President Omar Suleiman of Egypt says he does not think it is time to lift the 30-year-old emergency law that has been used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders. He does not think President Hosni Mubarak needs to resign before his term ends in September. And he does not think his country is yet ready for democracy.
But, considering it lacks better options, the United States has strongly backed him to play the pivotal role in a still uncertain transition process in Egypt. In doing so, it is relying on the existing government to make changes that it has steadfastly resisted for years, and even now does not seem impatient to carry out.
After two weeks of recalibrated messages and efforts to keep up with a rapidly evolving situation, the Obama administration is still trying to balance support for some of the basic aspirations for change in Egypt with its concern that the pro-democracy movement could be “hijacked,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it, if change were to come too quickly.
The result has been to feed a perception, on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, that the United States, for now at least, is putting stability ahead of democratic ideals, and leaving hopes of nurturing peaceful, gradual change in large part in the hands of Egyptian officials — starting with Mr. Suleiman — who have every reason to slow the process.
The United States has certainly had long ties with Mr. Suleiman, 74, who headed Egyptian intelligence from 1993 until he was named vice president last month. For years he has been an important contact for the Central Intelligence Agency and a regular briefer for visiting American officials, who appear to have valued his analysis of Egypt’s relations with neighbors and domestic challenges, as diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks make clear.
The cables describe Mr. Suleiman as Mr. Mubarak’s “consigliere” and having “an extremely sharp analytical mind” and serving as “the de facto national security adviser with direct responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian account.” One 2009 cable mentions him as a possible successor to Mr. Mubarak, to whom he has long been extremely close.
Similarly, a meeting with opposition groups on Sunday led by Mr. Suleiman was seen by many Egyptian activists as nothing more than political theater that yielded no concrete steps toward reform. In a statement afterward — characterized by opposition figures as propaganda — Mr. Suleiman offered some of what the administration sought, but left himself a lot of wiggle room.
In the statement, he said a committee “will be formed from members of the judicial authority and a number of political figures to study and recommend constitutional amendments” and related laws. The work is supposed to be completed by the first week of March.
But the recommendations do not appear to be binding on the government; in the end, they would have to be approved by a Parliament that took office after an election last year that American officials say was clearly fixed to benefit Mr. Mubarak’s party.
The document promised that “the state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society.” This is similar to what Mr. Mubarak has said for decades. The state of emergency has never been lifted.
The statement also says that “media and communications will be liberalized and no extralegal constraints will be imposed on them.” But “liberalized” is never defined, nor is it clear that Egypt is willing to allow the free flow of information over the Internet.
The White House took no issue with Mr. Suleiman’s statement; administration officials said it looked like the setting of some clear goals. On Monday, Mr. Obama said Mr. Suleiman’s talks with opposition leaders the day before were making progress.