Biden: Hey, Mubarak's not a dictator

The guy’s been governing under “emergency” powers for 30 years. As we speak, his security forces have reportedly cut off access to Facebook and Twitter in order to handicap tomorrow’s protests. And at least eight leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested with more doubtless to come in order to weaken the opposition.

Not a dictator, though.

Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffs, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters’ demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that aflicts millions of Egyptians.

Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: “We’re encouraging the protesters to – as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we’re encouraging the government to act responsibly and – and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out.” He also said: “I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable… accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.”

As CSM notes, the protesters would surely be curious to know which of their demands for democratic reform is “illegitimate.” I get that we’re in a diplomatic bind here and that Biden’s hands are, to some extent, tied. Remember what happened last week when Harry Reid described Hu Jintao, not (entirely) inaccurately, as a “dictator” before walking it back? But if Obama’s leaning on Mubarak to democratize in order to earn the U.S. some goodwill on the Arab street, how do Biden’s comments here serve that end? Are the two playing some weird version of good cop/bad cop, with the VP responsible for stroking panicky Arab autocrats while the president plays to the people in the street? Mixed messages aren’t going to win much support if Mubarak is toppled after decades of America propping him up. Sure hope this bet-hedging works.

Here’s a snippet from the PBS interview, with Biden visibly uncomfortable at having to talk about this. Elsewhere in Egypt news tonight, Time mag wonders if Iranian nuclear apologist Mohamed ElBaradei is the answer. In that case, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, what is the question?

Update: What could go wrong?

Demonstrators in Egypt have protested against rising prices and stagnant incomes, for greater freedom and against police brutality. But religion, so often a powerful mobilizing force here, has so far played little role.

That may be about to change.

With organizers calling for demonstrations after Friday prayer, the political movement will literally be taken to the doorsteps of the nation’s mosques. And as the Egyptian government and security services brace for the expected wave of mass demonstrations, Islamic groups seem poised to emerge as wildcards in the growing political movement.

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