Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Controlling the Message - US and Egypt

I hate concentrating on one subject, but Egypt is really, really important. Over at Information Dissemination, they noted that the Enterprise battle group has reportedly sailed from Portugal into the Med. It does not take too much imagination where the group is heading. But ID asks some very key questions about communications and developing perceptions about the possible role the US may play in the overthrow of Mubarak.

As ID has pointed out, Suez is a key strategic asset whose closure would adversely affect international trade and economies. Reports (unconfirmed via Stratfor) that the Gaza border is open to Egypt provides a legitimate cause for concern should Hamas decide to escalate the war (and that is what it is) with Israel by disrupting Suez traffic. So sending the Enterprise – with its US Marine contingent – to Suez is a necessary tactical move. However, I completely agree with ID that instead of or in addition to any CNN reporter on the flight deck put a reporter from Al Jazeera. Control the message, because if the Egyptian air force – using US fighters - decides Mubarak is worth a fight, then things will get very ugly, very fast. Al Jazeera will report the movement of the battle group anyway and the reaction of the Egyptian people will be that it is sailing to support Mubarak. Very. Big. Mistake.

The political situation post Mubarak is difficult to gauge. The neo-cons are worried about the Muslim Brotherhood becoming the dominant political force in Egypt and turning it into an Islamic state. They forget three important points – MB does not espouse the same ideology as the regime in Iran and has no leading clerics or leaders; it is not the only opposition political party; and, it will remain a powerful political force no matter what. They are a player who must be considered in any future government. It would make sense for the MB to form a coalition with several parties, secular and non-secular, in order to bring some stability but they are unlikely to be reading my advice.

From a foreign policy perspective, the probability that Egypt would lurch into the Iran mode is very remote – but not impossible. Particularly if the US and the West is viewed as having propped him up. Politicians and pundits routinely dismiss the improbable based on past experience (such as the un-forcasted revolution in Tunisia and the current upheaval in Egypt) – much to their subsequent embarrassment (which unfortunately is soon forgotten). However, it is not clear that the MB has the political strength to pull off what would amount to a coup as this would require army and air force support, which they won't get.

Mubarak has been an ally of the West in the region and he has continued the foreign policies of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, for 30 years, which has been a good thing. Those policies are likely to change in the near future – and the US and Western Europe need to control their messages to Egypt right now so that the extent of the foreign policy changes is minimal. Sending a carrier battle group to Suez may be militarily prudent – but sending it with the wrong message could make matters worse.

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