Report: Obama to step up criticism of Mubarak if he cracks down on protesters

True or false? We’ll know pretty soon: Tomorrow is prayer day in the Muslim world, and prayer day has a habit of turning into protest day with so many people out in the streets after services at the mosque. The Muslim Brotherhood has already ordered its followers to turn out, and Mohamed ElBaradei — whom you may remember from his days at the IAEA as a useful idiot for Iran — is vowing to participate on behalf of secular dissidents. In case you’re unfamiliar with Egypt’s political dynamics, bear in mind while you’re following the news tomorrow that it’s entirely possible for protesters to be pro-democracy and pro-Islamist, at least in the short-term. Egypt’s religious fanatics are counting on westerners to fail to grasp that point and to rally behind the Brotherhood as the righteous populist response to Mubarak-brand fascism. Read this excellent post by Claire Berlinski about how their mouthpieces are already using American media to wave the banner of, ahem, “freedom” in the name of religious totalitarianism.

Anyway. Big standoff coming and Egyptian police aren’t likely to play nice given the risk of destabilization from ongoing massive demonstrations. Your move, Mr. President:

The White House is prepared to step up its criticism of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key Middle East ally, if his government intensifies its crackdown on protesters, said an administration official.

President Barack Obama privately pressed Mubarak in a telephone call last week to embrace democratic changes, said the official, who requested anonymity. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday said Mubarak, in power since 1981, has an “important opportunity” to enact economic, political and social reforms…

The message that White House officials want Mubarak to hear is that he should seize the protests as an opportunity to reform state institutions and not use them as a pretext to strengthen his grip on power, the administration officials said yesterday.

Ah, but the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali also “embraced democratic changes” at the eleventh hour, replete with a promise of elections within six months, in his desperation to defuse the protests. Result: The crowds didn’t believe that he’d follow through (why should they?) and pressed on, and he ended up bugging out the next day. I’m not sure why The One thinks Egyptians would react differently. Squeezing Mubarak to the point where he’s forced to make concessions will only encourage the demonstrators — which, incidentally, is also why I’m skeptical of the rumors going around about his son/heir apparent supposedly having escaped to Britain. (There was a similar rumor during the Iranian demonstrations in 2009 about Khamenei readying a jet to carry him away.) The regime can’t afford any provocative shows of weakness. It’s an incitement to their opponents and a confidence-killer in the military they’re counting on to protect them. The likely outcome here, I think, is some sort of nasty crackdown followed by token concessions aimed at easing public anger.

Meanwhile, a good question via our Greenroomer Karl: How come The One took his time speaking up on behalf of Iranian protesters, who were unquestionably more pro-American than the ruling regime, whereas in this case he’s pressuring Mubarak to make concessions even though the Muslim Brotherhood stands to benefit? Two answers to that, I think, one of them offered by Karl himself. First, Obama may figure that concessions are the best way to keep the Brotherhood frozen out of real power. If the public is placated by a democratic reform package proposed by Mubarak, the MB may benefit incidentally from some of the reforms but the regime itself will have been preserved. And in the meantime, hopefully, the new reforms will give liberals a political foothold to appeal to young Egyptians who might otherwise opt for the Brotherhood as the only alternative to Mubarak. Second, I think it’s a simple question of leverage. In the case of Iran, where the regime was hostile to the U.S., calling for democratic concessions would have achieved nothing; on the contrary, had Obama spoken out, it would have given the mullahs a pretext to claim that the protesters were props of the American Zionist cabal or whatever. With Egypt, the government is not only an ally (sort of) but depends on us for foreign aid, and needless to say, no one thinks the Muslim Brotherhood is a proxy of the CIA. We’ve got a bit of muscle to flex here, so we’re flexing it.

I just hope The One doesn’t think he’s going to earn some sort of goodwill within the region for backing the local democrats, because, er, that’s not how Middle Eastern politics works. America’s always the villain eventually. To wit:

Hours later, many of us were back home, checking our Twitter and Facebook feeds for news and wondering what would happen next. Would there be a curfew, would the president release a statement, would the state concede anything? What would tomorrow’s papers say? People joked that the ruling family had just landed at Heathrow, a hundred bags in tow. Ayman Nour tweeted that his son had been detained. Activists slammed Hilary Clinton’s remarks describing Egypt’s government as “stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” A picture of an empty tear gas canister circulated, the zoom focusing in on ‘Made in USA’. Organizers circulated a message that the protests would continue, tomorrow, the next day, and Friday after midday prayers.

If Mubarak falls, the storyline on Al Jazeera presumably won’t be “American support helps demonstrators topple tyrant,” it’ll be “American-backed tyrant finally toppled.” Exit question: Er, what do we do if protests break out tomorrow — again — in Yemen too? Is Obama prepared to support a reform movement in the planet’s new jihadist hot spot?