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Americas

White House ignored multiple warnings about crisis in Egypt

There's a general consensus among policymakers and analysts that the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere were unpredictable. That's untrue. There were plenty of experts who warned concretely about an impending crisis.

Mubarak and Obama

The White House failed to act on repeated warnings of turmoil in Egypt

When hundreds of thousands took to the streets first in Tunis, then in Cairo, Western governments were caught off guard just as much as the dictatorial regimes that were the target of the protests. The US, arguably the country with the strongest interests and the most leverage in the region, was still scrambling to make sense of Tunisian President Ben Ali's swift exit when the next regime, this time in Egypt, crumbled.

Without a clear crisis management plan at the ready, the Obama administration's reaction to the events in Cairo waffled between tenuous support for the protestors and continued allegiance with the Mubarak regime, a key US partner in the Middle East.

Taken by surprise

The remark by Vice President Joe Biden, probably the Obama administration's most experienced foreign policymaker, in the midst of Egypt's uprising that he wouldn't classify Hosni Mubarak as a dictator serves perhaps as the most telling sign that the US government was unprepared for the events that rocked the Middle East.

But as it turned out the vast network of US intelligence services was apparently equally flabbergasted by the revolt in Egypt as their political counterparts.

While the CIA director's statement before Congress that there was a "strong likelihood" that Hosni Mubarak would step down the same night proved wrong and made the most headlines, the more damaging remark actually came from Leon Panetta's boss. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, testified before Congress that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was "largely secular" and "eschewed violence" only to have his statement later corrected by a spokesman.

President Barack Obama, according to a February 4 article in the New York Times, was unhappy with the information and analysis he received on the uprising in the Middle East by his intelligence services.

Internal White House study on Egypt

However, instead of relying on the CIA and others to prognosticate events in Egypt and elsewhere the president could have simply turned to his own advisors.

As reported by the New York Times, Obama himself commissioned a secret review of possible unrest in the Middle East back in August 2010. The so-called Presidential Study Directive concluded that numerous countries in the region were prone to mass unrest without serious political changes, wrote the paper. The 18-page report so far hasn't been officially submitted, but is apparently helping the US deal with the events. Still, the crucial question why the White House didn't act on its in-house information prior to the crisis in the Middle East remains unclear.

While the Presidential Study Directive was conducted in secret, the Obama administration also was repeatedly alerted publicly to the dangerous situation in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt.

A high-level Working Group on Egypt, consisting of a bipartisan cadre of former government officials, human rights activists and Middle East experts, sent numerous letters to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in spring of last year repeatedly urging the administration to press for serious reforms in Egypt to avert a possible conflict.

Egyptian Ahmed Gomma, right, 14-year old with another young worker at the a brick factory in the suburb of Helwan, Cairo, Egypt in 2008

The plight of young people was a cause for the revolt in Egypt

The heads of the Working Group on Egypt, Michele Dunne and Robert Kagan, then followed up with an op-ed in the Washington Post in June 2010, warning that "the Obama administration, in pursuit of an illusory stability, stands mute and passive as the predictable train wreck draws nearer." And according to the Washington Post, the group also had meetings with senior State Department officials.

So why did the administration not heed the advice of the experts?

"I think they didn't share the urgency that some of us on the outside felt about this," Michele Dunne, a co-chair of the Working Group on Egypt told Deutsche Welle. "That things in Egypt were deteriorating dangerously, that there could be an explosion at some point if Mubarak didn't undertake some reform measures."

Conflicting positions

Dunne, who is a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and editor of the online journal the Arab Reform Bulletin, thinks the US administration was in two minds about what to do in Egypt. While Washington saw the situation in Egypt deteriorating after the renewal of the state of emergency and the rigged election, it found it difficult to act upon it, adds Dunne.

"The United States government has a lot of interests to work with Egypt and I think they weren't really sure how to press strongly for improvements for human rights and democracy while at the same time working with the Egyptian government on diplomacy, security, and counterterrorism."

What's more, many experts, not just those inside the Obama administration, simply underestimated the potential for revolt in Egypt.

"I think that most analysts didn't take seriously trends and developments that we saw in Egypt over the last few years," argues Dunne. To her the youth bulge in the country coupled with a high level of unemployment and increased political activism over the Internet was an alarm signal.

Real revolution

But others didn't think so. "This was seen as just a virtual political activism, not real political activism and I think the link that most analysts missed was the possibility that these activists who were organizing by the tens of thousands on the Internet could actually take it to the streets," says Dunne who emphasizes that she doesn't want to claim that she predicted the revolution would occur when it did, because she didn't.

"However, I did see this year as being a very volatile time in Egypt because of the succession issue," she notes. "Because President Mubarak is 83 years old everyone knew he wouldn't be in the presidency much longer."

Over in Israel, Tamir Sheafer, an associate professor of political science and communication at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was also not terribly surprised by the uprising in Egypt.

Democratic gap

Since 2008 Sheafer and a colleague have been working on a major study on political instability that will be published in the coming months. Their goal: Predicting a country's potential for political instability. To do that, they analyzed 90 countries looking at the usual publicly available variables such as political diversity and income distribution. But then they added a twist to their approach that makes their analysis unique. They created a variable they call the democratic gap.

"This democratic gap is the difference between the democratic values of the people and the level of democracy that is provided to them by the political system," explains Sheafer. "So if for instance people are holding high democratic values but they live in a dictatorship we have a large negative democratic gap. While if the people don't want much democracy, but live in a democracy we have a positive democratic gap, i.e. they are getting more democracy than they want."

Their major finding is that in countries that have a negative democratic gap there is more political instability. "This is not a big surprise," admits Sheafer freely. "It just makes sense. The unique thing about our study is that we have managed to measure it."

Ripe for unrest

You can probably guess now which country ranked among those with the highest negative democratic gap.

The unrest in Egypt toppled the government

The US underestimated the level of dissatisfaction with the Egyptian regime

"In Egypt we see one of the largest democratic gaps among all 90 countries which means that in 2008 our measures show that the difference between the democratic values of the people and the level of democracy that they were given by the political regime was very large," says Sheafer.

Besides Egypt the three other countries with the largest democratic gap are Iran, Thailand and China, says Sheafer. Among those Iran displays the biggest discrepancy between the democratic aspirations of its people and the level of democracy granted by the regime.

While Sheafer repeatedly stresses that the democratic gap method can't predict unrest in a country, it certainly does serve as an indicator that the climate is ripe for political unrest.

"We do see that in those countries where the negative democratic gap is the largest - Iran, Thailand, China and Egypt - after 2008 in three of them except China we experienced extreme phases of instability and violence," says Sheafer.

As to the vulnerability of other regimes in the Middle East, Sheafer says while they don't have data on Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, Jordan actually has a positive democratic gap and thus according to their data would appear to be less prone to unrest.

However two other countries to look out for in the region are Saudi Arabia and Morocco, adds Sheafer. Both have a clear negative democratic gap.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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