WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) - When a public uprising ousted Tunisia’s leader after two decades in power, U.S. policymakers and intelligence analysts immediately wondered what this might mean for Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and a staunch American ally.
Indeed, as far back as last year, senior aides to President Barack Obama got a warning from outside analysts that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power was tenuous. The analysts advised the administration to try to get out in front of events.
Yet, as the crisis in Egypt built over the course of the past week, the Obama administration struggled to keep up with fast-moving events, a problem it must overcome as it grapples with future events in Egypt and the wider region.
“In the best of all worlds, they would have more clear, pro-active goals for the region,” said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, who was one of a handful of officials who met with the administration last year and warned about potential instability in Egypt.
“But at this stage, especially as events unfold pretty quickly and violence escalates, it becomes all the harder for them to move out of this tactical, reactive mode.”
Complicating matters for the administration are separate concerns about the adequacy of intelligence used by policymakers to help formulate their responses to such events.
Two officials familiar with U.S. intelligence reporting on the protests in Tunisia and Egypt say that the view of some congressional and policymaking officials about the quality of U.S. intelligence on the crisis is that it has been behind the curve and not particularly useful.
Congressional committees have begun to ask questions about the adequacy of U.S. intelligence reporting and analysis on the growing upheavals and possible future instability in North Africa and the Middle East, Capitol Hill sources said.
Still, U.S. administration officials told Reuters that intelligence officials have long been watching calls for political change in Egypt and the potential that the protests could gather momentum was recognized from the beginning.
“Did anyone in the world know in advance that a fruit vendor in Tunisia was going to light himself on fire and spark a revolution? No,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the White House National Security Council. But Vietor said diplomats and intelligence officers had been reporting on “simmering unrest” in the region for years.
“The brittleness of some of these regimes is something the president has noted and discussed for a long time,” a White House official said. The official said that during the first briefing Obama received on Tunisia’s crisis, he asked advisers for an analysis of where it could spread.
Several analysts said the Obama administration was understandably reluctant to get too far out in front of events in Egypt and so pursued a cautious course.
“It’s dangerous to be ahead of the curve, especially when you’re talking about a country that you have a very important relationship with and where the leader has made any number of sacrifices for the United States,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Katulis said the administration appeared to have been caught “a little flat-footed” by the speed of events in early public comments on the Egyptian crisis but believed the administration managed to catch up by the end of the week.
Said Vietor: “The messaging has evolved with events but in a way that makes sure that the people of Egypt are out in front.”
When Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress eight days ago, he did not discuss Egypt directly but alluded to the issues with a mention of Tunisia.
Earlier that day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke publicly on the subject, expressing support for the protesters’ free speech as police fired tear gas and used water cannons to deter crowds. But she also described the Egyptian government as “stable,” a comment that was followed two days later by Vice President Joe Biden’s answer of “no” when asked whether Mubarak should step down.
Activists in Egypt, including prominent opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, and several U.S. critics viewed the comments as suggesting solidarity with Mubarak. Some said the administration ran the risk of appearing to be on the wrong side of history.
“They’ve been incredibly reactive,” said Daniella Pletka, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. “You don’t get a sense that the administration has a vision of the outcome that it’s working towards.”
But Katulis and Alterman offered a more favorable assessment, especially of the administration’s actions behind the scenes. A White House official said private messages to Egyptian officials have been far blunter than the public ones.
Katulis said administration officials have “listened in a very thorough way to all of their counterparts.”
In public, a shift in rhetoric began late last week.
In a YouTube interview, Obama praised Egypt’s role as a U.S. ally “on a lot of critical issues” but urged the government to move ahead on reform. He again pressed the reform message in remarks to reporters at the White House after speaking to Mubarak by phone.
On Sunday, Clinton took to the U.S. airwaves to call for an “orderly transition” in Egypt. By Tuesday Obama was urging that it take place soon.
The U.S. president made the statement after watching in the White House Situation Room as Mubarak told Egyptians in a video message that he would not stand in elections scheduled for September.
Mubarak’s message came amid mass protests in his country and after a meeting with former U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner, who conveyed Obama’s view about the need for a transition in power in Egypt.
Katulis and other analysts praised the decision to send Wisner, who has a close relationship with Mubarak, but whether the embattled Egyptian leader will heed the U.S. message remains a big question.
“The real test of (the Obama administration’s strategy) will be what kind of results do they achieve on the ground, both in Egypt and what kind of reaction do they get in terms of partners and allies in the region?” Katulis said.
Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Eric Beech