Cairo in Turmoil: Obama’s Plan B Stumbles, What’s Plan C?

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Egyptian protesters clash with police in Mohammed Mahmud Street, near Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, on Nov. 23, 2011 (Photo: Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME)

The reason the Obama Administration has been so reluctant to criticize Egypt’s military junta for its violent handling of the latest round of democracy protests is that the generals have, all along, been Washington’s preferred stewards of post-Mubarak political change. The State Department on Tuesday finally condemned the “excessive force” used to break up demonstrations that had continued four days after they began, urging “maximum restraint” on the authorities.  That denunciation came after days of exasperation from protesters, tweeting about the U.S.-made tear-gas canisters that were being fired at them and expressing outrage at Washington’s previous calls for restraint from “both sides.”

Despite having been left flailing in the face of the rebellion that forced out longtime U.S.-client-dictator President Hosni Mubarak last February, the Obama Administration welcomed its outcome — the passing of executive authority  not to some popular but untested opposition organization (or, heaven forbid, the Muslim Brotherhood) but to a junta of Mubarak-appointed generals, generationally steeped in a relationship that safeguarded U.S. and Israeli security needs in exchange for an annual $3 billion stipend from Washington.

Moreover, the pressed-khaki-clad men of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had vowed to oversee a transition to elected government, which quieted the streets and restored stability  without any immediate dire consequences for U.S. strategic interests. Personnel aside, in fact, the transition from Mubarak’s rule has proceeded pretty much on the lines advocated by the Administration at the height of the crisis. As it became clear by early February that the crisis could not be ended with Mubarak still in office, Washington called for “an orderly transition” under the supervision of General Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief and enforcer who was named as Vice President by the beleaguered strongman in his waning days.

Sure, Suleiman himself didn’t make it; he was sidelined from any public role in the new order along with his old boss — although strangely enough, just last week he made his first public foray since his ouster, to warn opposition groups against challenging the military’s control over the transition.

But from a U.S. point of view, “an orderly transition” headed by Mubarak’s Defense Minister, SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, was just as welcome — even more so, perhaps, because unlike Suleiman, he hadn’t been handed the wheel directly by Mubarak, and was therefore less likely to antagonize the protesters.

Well, at least not until it became clear that Tantawi and his cohort planned to keep the military beyond oversight and command of any future elected civilian government, and to claim a de facto veto over its decisionmaking. That ignited the protests that began last week and were sharply escalated by the authorities’ violent response. The events of the past week have all but shattered the “orderly transition” model, which the military has taken as code for maintaining its authoritarian and repressive control, and dictating the terms of Egypt’s political future.

It’s no longer a question of whether the military regime is headed by General Suleiman or Field Marshal Tantawi, but whether the transition is headed by the military at all.

Some have  described that as a dilemma for the Obama Administration, once again forcing it to choose between authoritarian stability in the form of the junta over the uncertainty of democracy. Two weeks ago, its own advisers on the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt had even urged the Administration to pressure the generals to make good on a democratic transition, conditioning U.S. military aid to Egypt on the military accepting its withdrawal from political life and subordination to an elected civilian government.

But if the U.S. once again finds itself anxiously wringing its hands in the face of a rapidly changing political situation in Egypt, the abiding lesson of 2011 has been just how limited U.S. leverage and influence has become across the Middle East. The proposals, entreaties and threats by the Obama Administration are now routinely ignored by friend and foe alike — Saudi Arabia orchestrated a brutal crackdown on Bahrain’s democracy movement when the U.S. was urging dialogue; Iraq said thanks but no thanks to U.S. troops staying on beyond December; Israel kept on building settlements, while the Palestinians ignored Obama’s frantic efforts to stop them from taking their case to the U.N.; Iran ignored U.S.-led pressure over its nuclear program; Syria’s President Bashar Assad has ignored Washington’s demand that he step down; Turkey has been unmoved by Obama’s efforts to cajole it into reconciliation with Israel; and so on.

Washington may not like the military’s handling of the transition, but it may not like the outcome of a democratic election in which the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to emerge as the most powerful force in government either. On the streets, despite its efforts to engage and ingratiate itself with opposition groups, it is still widely viewed with suspicion, regarded as an enabler of the junta. Decades of support for Egypt’s dictators have left little enthusiasm across its political spectrum for U.S. involvement in shaping the country’s future.

It’s just as well, perhaps, that the Administration has begun talking of a “Pacific century,” moving troops to Australia even as it withdraws from Iraq. Because for better or worse, 2011 will be remembered as the year the Middle East, as a region, declared its independence from U.S. influence.