Egypt: From Police State to Military Rule

Egypt’s Army Calls the Shots

"The first step is [Mubarak] has to go…The second step is we have to have a government of national salvation in coordination with the army. The third step is the army has that horrible task of ensuring security."

-- Mohammed ElBaradei, the former U.N. official who has emerged as an opposition leader in Egypt, talking to the BBC.

All eyes are on Egypt’s army today as President Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power continues to slip.

The signals are that the 83-year-old president is trying to clear the way for an orderly succession, but only in the already scheduled national elections of September. The question is whether Mubarak will try to remain in control himself or whether he will step aside in favor of an interim government backed by the army.

The police and intelligence officials who previously enforced Mubarak’s authoritarian dictates have largely yielded the streets to rioters, protesters and looters. In their place, the army has emerged as peacekeeper, but with clear sympathies for the calls for greater freedom and less corruption.

But because Mubarak was so effective in squelching opposition in his 30 years, there is not much in the way of a legitimate alternative to him and his nationalist party. While secular, peaceful protests have been gaining momentum, Islamist groups that had been pushing underground for an Egyptian theocracy for many years had a big head start.

Mubarak’s supporters have been talking about the need for a transition plan, but so far that transition plan has been to name the head of the country’s much-hated intelligence agency as his vice president. Not a change likely to comfort human rights advocates and protestors.

The problem for President Obama is that if he pushes too hard on Mubarak, the government might topple before there is a non-Jihadist alternative available or that Mubarak will try to clamp down again, redeploying his security forces to do battle in the streets and try again to shut down the Internet and communications. Such moves increase the chances for massive bloodshed and the kind of overthrow that befell the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran in 1979.

With huge new protests planned for Tuesday, time is running short for Mubarak to come up with his own exit strategy.

Obama has limited options in dealing with the situation, especially since he stepped back from the Bush administration’s policy of pressuring Mubarak for greater reforms. The time for diplomatic pressure has passed.

Mubarak now knows that there will be little international support if he seeks to hold power, and certainly no appetite to see his son succeed him as head of the nation. The family is presumably very wealthy after so many years in command, so there is little left for Westerners to say or do to persuade Mubarak. The army and the rioters will have more to say than the American president. The drama will play out in Cairo and Alexandria over the next two days largely on its own.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the U.N. weapons inspector who so frustrated efforts by the Bush administration to undo Iran’s nuclear program, has emerged as the de facto leader of the opposition. While a secular figure himself, if ElBaradei seeks to form a government, he may need the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is reportedly supported by Iran.

But while Islamists and secular reformers continue their wary dance, it will be the army that decides the nation’s fate.

Where in the World is Hillary Clinton?

"I don't label anything like that, this is a very serious time for Egypt and we are going to do all we can to support an orderly transition to support a situation in which the aspirations of the Egyptians are addressed.”

-- Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton on a weekend trip to Haiti when asked if the Egyptian uprising represented a foreign policy crisis.

There are thousands of Americans desperate to get out of Egypt and neighboring parts of the Middle East. But airlines are canceling, not adding, flights to the troubled region. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo is being guarded by the Egyptian army, whose loyalties at the moment seem, er, flexible.

But on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Haiti to urge support for new elections there. She answered criticism that she would shift her focus to a less urgent situation in the Caribbean with Egypt in flames by saying that the situation in Egypt was in hand and that she was up to date.

Haiti is certainly a humanitarian disaster and could send refugees flooding toward the U.S., but that has been the case for many, many years and will remain the case for the foreseeable future. Egypt, meanwhile, is a powder keg that could destabilize an already very unstable region.

Today, Clinton will host the first-ever conclave of all of the top diplomats in the State Department in Washington. Clinton has called the lead envoys in all 260 embassies, consulates and other posts from around the world back to Washington for a group discussion about the agencies priorities. Presumably, the folks serving in Egypt got a pass.

The meeting may have been spurred by damaging leaks of department cables that provided embarrassing details about American assessments of allied leaders and also evidence that diplomatic officials were being called on to do intelligence gathering on foreign leaders.

With the situation in Egypt so volatile and so many Americans calling on the State Department for help, the meeting comes at an inconvenient time for Clinton and her agency.

Why Egypt Matters So Much to America

"With Egypt, a big story is the redrawing of U.S. security architecture in the region."

-- David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, talking to the Wall Street Journal.

Whenever a house in what real estate agents call “transitional” neighborhoods goes on the market, the urban pioneers on the block – yuppies hoping to speed the gentrification of dilapidated areas – watch with great trepidation.

Will another farmers’ market kind of family move in to swap lentil recipes and share tips on preventing their BMWs from being burglarized, or will the house sit empty until it becomes a haven for crackheads, prostitutes and petty criminals?

The Middle East is the ultimate transitional neighborhood and Egypt is the biggest house sitting right on the corner lot.

The region has some great fixer uppers, but also some very bad neighbors. The current rehab project in Iraq has been an ordeal, but there are signs of hope. But other formerly positive stories, like Lebanon, have taken a downward turn because of the meddling of Iran and Syria, the resolute bad actors of the area.

There are lots of reasons for Americans to care deeply about what happens in Egypt. The state of 80 million Muslims could become a new hotbed for Jihad in the hands of Islamists. With major oil reserves and control of the Suez Canal petro-passage, Egypt also has a major say in oil prices, which are already climbing and bringing recovery-killing inflation along with them. Plus, there are thousands of Americans who work and visit the nation. There are also the priceless antiquities from one of mankind’s oldest civilizations.

But as the crossroads of the world for Greeks, Romans, British traders, Napoleon’s armies and others, Egypt’s greatest significance may be that of leading indicator of the most dangerous neighborhood in the world. A radicalized Egypt may push America’s allies in the region – Israel, Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf states – to take precautions that lead to an overall escalation of hostilities in the region.

If Egypt goes the wrong way, America will find itself faced with quickly deteriorating choices in an already unstable part of the world.

Major Obamacare Ruling Expected Today

"The power that the individual mandate seeks to harness is simply without prior precedent.”

-- U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson in an October ruling in a lawsuit by 26 states seeking to overturn President Obama’s national health care law.

Clerks for federal Judge Roger Vinson have told reporters to get ready for his Pensacola, Fla., court to issue a decision today on the lawsuit brought by 26 states and the nation’s leading small business organization against President Obama’s national health care law.

In his prior rulings in the case, Vinson, 70, has shown that he agrees with the attorneys general who brought the suit on the key question: Does the federal government have the power to compel Americans to buy private health insurance as a condition of citizenship? The plaintiffs argue that while the government has the power to regulate commerce under the Constitution, it doesn’t have the power to command it.

The Obama law says every American must buy private insurance or pay a fine. Exceptions are made for those deemed too poor to afford insurance, but they must enroll in a government program like Medicaid or the subsidized insurance exchanges created by the law.

The provision is widely unpopular and Obama himself campaigned against it in 2008. But, in order to meet Obama’s first goal of requiring insurance companies to write policies for all applicants, regardless of their health, the so-called “individual mandate” was added to the law.

If companies are required to write policies for sick people but there is no requirement for healthy people to have coverage, too many people will wait until they are sick to buy insurance, sending rates for policies through the roof and potentially destroying the private insurance system. As has been observed elsewhere, if you could buy retroactive car insurance after an accident, there would be little incentive to carry coverage all the time.

The coverage of pre-existing conditions depends on the mandate, and the coverage of pre-existing conditions is the heart of the Obama law.

Vinson will be referred to all day by the establishment press as a “Reagan judge” or a “Republican judge” if the ruling goes against the president’s law, as expected.

Vinson was appointed to the bench in 1983 and now sits as a senior-status judge in the Northern District of Florida. He is also part of the 11-member Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court that decides on government requests for national security wiretaps.

A Virginia judge already ruled on the commonwealth’s similar lawsuit, meaning that Vinson could today bring the number of states that have sued to block the Obama law to 27 and, in this case, joined by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a lobbying group that boasts 350,000 members.

While it will likely be fall before this case and the Virginia lawsuit can reach the Supreme Court, the ruling would add new urgency to the negotiations in the Senate over major modifications to the law. House Republicans have already passed a repeal of the measure, and while that’s not likely to pass the Senate, few expect the legislation to stand unchanged.

If the mandate looks like it’s in serious legal trouble, moderate Senate Democrats might be more receptive to a plan backed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would allow states to opt out of the mandate. That might make moot the lawsuits, but it also might be the undoing of the law. If 27 states opted out, there would not be enough taxpayers and ratepayers to share the burden of the Obama law.

The president began pushing back against threats to his law last week. Look for that effort to escalate in the wake of this ruling if it goes against the law.

If Vinson decides in favor of the 26 states, it will be dismissed as partisan hackery by Democrats and many in the press corps. But whatever they call it, the decision moves the country one step closer to the constitutional showdown over the president’s law and legacy.

Washington Press Corps Hypes 2012 Bid by Obama China Ambassador

“It’s also good to see Jon Huntsman, our ambassador to China. Or as we call him around the White House: the Manchurian Candidate. I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration.”

-- White House Chief of Staff William Daley at a Saturday dinner, according to Politico.

Ambassador Jon Huntsman has everything Washington would want in a Republican presidential nominee. He’s socially moderate, handsome, wealthy, Ivy League-educated and took a job in a Democratic administration.

But Huntsman seems to have little that Republican primary voters would be interested in. In a race where Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been pilloried for even suggesting a “truce” on social issues to address fiscal problems, a little-known Obama appointee who favors same-sex unions would be a counterintuitive candidate, to say the least.

But, Huntsman is loaded. His family’s chemical company has made them very rich and very influential within their Mormon faith, and, by extension, Utah politics.

So, the expectation is growing by the day that Huntsman will soon quit his post as U.S. Ambassador to China as a prelude to a presidential run. First the Washington Post and now Politico have fluttered about insiders hinting at a Huntsman run and that Huntsman has retained a political team that could be the skeleton of a campaign.

What isn’t clear is how much of this hype is coming from Huntsman and how much is coming from the Obama White House. Recall that Huntsman was the potential 2012 candidate cited by Senior White House Adviser David Plouffe as the one that worried Obama the most early on.

It may be a sincere concern based on the way the Obama team views the electorate. Huntsman is from the West, the target region for Obama, and shares Obama’s technocratic approach to government. It may also be a cynical attempt to draw a well-funded candidate into the GOP field, one that would compete directly for votes with fellow Mormon Mitt Romney.

Of course, Huntsman might help Romney by making him look more conservative to primary voters.

For whatever reason, Team Obama likes to talk up Huntsman’s chances and the Washington press corps likes to amplify that talk.

The only path to GOP viability that seems open to Huntsman is to quit the Obama administration and immediately begin blasting the president, particularly on China policy. If Huntsman started talking up Obama deficiencies on foreign affairs, it might get him a look from Republicans.

But that doesn’t seem to be Huntsman’s style and it would be hard to sustain a year-long campaign based on the central theme of China menace.

Huntsman caught Obama’s eye for being willing to speak out against fellow Republicans and voicing concern about the direction of the party toward ultra conservatism. That maverick streak may get front pages of Politico and the Washington Post, but likely won’t cut many grits with South Carolina primary voters.