Yesterday The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is negotiating with newly-instated Vice President Omar Suleiman to head a transitional government that "would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform" and include "a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood."
But as economist William Easterly points out, American-backed "transitions" have an unsavory history:
As this blog has pointed out, the "transition" word is a much-used device to appear to be in favor of democracy while in fact taking no position whatsoever. The democracy scholar Thomas Carothers is one who first pointed out the emptiness of the "transition" paradigm, noting a USAID description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as a country in "transition to a democratic, free market society."
In this rhetorical make-believe, every country is allegedly in "transition" to democracy, even if a dicatator is the status quo. Dictators are just a temporary delay, or even maybe themselves gradually "transitioning," since the "transition" jargon leaves completely open when democracy will arrive, or how slowly the dictatorship will imperceptibly fade away.
Up until last week, Joe Biden "would not refer to [Mubarak] as a dictator"—a stunning rejection of reality, even taking into account Biden's formidable gaffe handicap. And on Sunday, the more calculating Hillary Clinton gave us an idea of exactly how hard the US intends to work—about as hard as they've worked for the last three decades:
This is a very volatile situation, and I think that as we monitor it closely we continue to urge the Egyptian Government, as the United States has for 30 years, to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people and begin to take concrete steps to implement democratic and economic reform.
But aside from these verbal blunders from America's top politicians, the chioce of Omar Suleiman as the American-backed transitional leader really says all you need to know about our respect for the protestors' demands. A staunch supporter of Mubarak, hand-picked as vice president in the early days of the revolt, he was rejected by those in Tahrir Square as soon as he was elevated to that position. Suleiman is one of the most powerful spy chiefs in the Middle East, and was the United States' point man on extraordinary renditions, which may explain why America feels so comfortable negotiating with him.
Privately, many US officials were relieved to have a man in Cairo they could phone and "level with".
Indeed as the situation in Egypt subsequently deteriorated, Suleiman rapidly turned into Washington's point-man in the Egyptian administration.
On Feb. 2, as pro-Mubarak demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square waged pitched battles against anti-government protesters, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Suleiman to urge him to investigate who was behind the day's violence and hold them accountable.
Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, who was dispatched to Cairo by Obama to try to diffuse the crisis, also met with Suleiman during his visit.