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Washington doomed to be caught in Mideast unrest

14:55, January 31, 2011

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By Li Hongmei

The Egyptian rioting against the still ruling Mubarak began on Jan. 25, in the wake of the Jan. 15 overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and amid the upheavals rippling through Middle East and North Africa and upholding the slogan to topple "Tyrannnies in the Arab world", with the publicly stated goals of ousting Mubarak from power and protesting Egypt's high unemployment and rampant corruption along with other public complaints and grievances. Despite the fact that Hosni Mubarak has long acted as a go-between for the U.S. to ease up its tensions with the Muslim world and also one of the super power's rare allies in the region, the U.S. is not ready to keep the embattled Mubarak in power at all costs.

Rather, Washington is reported to be quietly preparing for a post-Mubarak era in Egypt. Ideally to Americans, the successor would be a secular leader with the idea to promote modernization and democracy in Egypt. But White House is uncertain about the outcome of the escalating chaos sweeping the country and affecting the entire Arab world.

In all likelihood, the overthrow of Mubarak regime will not by any sense of the imagination lead to the advent of Jeffersonian democracy as the U.S. expects. The greater likelihood is that a radical and tightly-knit organization like the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of the mass unrest and seize power. This will spell a helpless nightmare for Washington's Middle East Policy.

Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which promotes the Islamist ideology and at times goes to extremes, stands to gain despite being a late comer to the revolt. What is worrisome is the fact that the young people who have been venturing out in streets are learning the ideas similar to what the Muslim Brotherhood preaches, and it is more gruesome to find that radicalism among the students would run high.

The White House has been taking an even-handed stance to the crisis in Egypt, suggesting that President Mubarak might be able to hold onto power if he allows competitive elections and restores individual freedoms. But inside the Obama administration, there are signs that officials are preparing for a post-Mubarak era after three decades.

The Obama administration does not intend to push Mubarak over the cliff, but they understand there is nothing they can do to keep their time-honored friend at the helm seeing an already listing ship.

Back to 2009, Obama gave a much-publicized speech in Cairo warning that governments cannot suppress people's rights. With protesters massing in the street demanding Mubarak's ouster, Obama would be hard-pressed to side with a "repressive" leader. Obama might have realized the change was coming and he needed to be "on the right side of history."

It's a very difficult balance to be struck. Mubarak is, after all, a friend of the United States for all the last 30 years. Some other American allies in the region -- the Saudis, Jordanians and Kuwaitis -- will feel the jitters if the U.S. chooses to victimize one of its friends.

The U.S. must be playing with fire if its long-term and desperate will to usher in political reforms to the region turn out to set a political stage for the radical and even extremist forces. And if Uncle Sam's cleverness overreaches itself, he will be hoisted with his own petard.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."