As anyone who has observed history over the last century can attest, the handling of the situation in Egypt can yield results that range from the dire to the glorious. Obama’s conflict resolution skills may play a role in determining which way things will go. I note the following from today’s New York Times:
“On Friday, administration officials said that among the political ideas that had been discussed were suggesting to Mr. Mubarak that he move to his home at Sharm el Sheik, the seaside resort, or that he embark on one of his annual medical leaves to Germany for an extended checkup. Such steps would provide him with a graceful exit and effectively remove him as the central political player, going partway toward addressing a central demand of protesters on the streets of Cairo.”
The Obama administration has clearly honed in on a key element in conflict resolution: helping parties to articulate options in a way that does not force a party to make a humiliating concession. At the same time, however, it needs to respond to the underlying concerns of the opposition — to be sure that a meaningful change will occur.
Avoiding humiliation can be tricky in the political context in which the perception of who is victorious is being played out on the world’s stage: both parties have a need to avoid humiliation; neither wants to do an about face or make concessions that make a mockery of their previous positions. But at the same time, both parties need to have their underlying objectives met.
Specifically, in a situation in which there is no trust, there needs to be some way of assuring the opposition that the fundamental changes they seek will, in fact, occur.
In the Egyptian context, the administration has focused on finding Mubarak a graceful exit. This is crucial, since the pride and ego of any person — but especially a person in great power — will not allow him to make an exit that is humiliating. Many would sooner risk death than humiliation. Thus, the administration has taken Mubarak at his word when he said that he was eager to step down, but that if he did, “Egypt would sink into chaos.”
In a mediation, such a statement might be contested by the other party, as insincere. Yet, this would be missing the point. The statement provides an opportunity to discuss the matter in a way that allows both parties to engage. If Mubarak is taken at his word, that he would step down in a way that would allow Egypt to avoid chaos (a slight twist on his words), then that gives the other side the opportunity to respond to that concern and provide a mechanism for him to step down in a way that avoids chaos. Sincere or not, Mubarak would then either be stuck with this approach or be exposed as misrepresenting the truth.
But more importantly, Mubarak’s statement could be seen as creating a safe exit for him — or even a way to backtrack and cooperate with his opposition. Perhaps Mubarak is desperately seeking a way to salvage a non-violent, reputation-saving way of ending this crisis. Taking him up on his offer is a win-win situation for everyone, and should be considered as a gift.
It was reported that Obama said that he believed that the Egyptian president had already made a “psychological break” from his hold on office by announcing that he would not run again. Here, the administration is once again saying that we must encourage Mubarak and support his effort to step down by giving him credit for his role in cooperating. At the same time, Obama is trying to find a way not to give too much credit to Mubarak for fear of taking the sense of “victory” and “justifiable outrage” away from the protesters. Considering the desire of the opposition to feel their triumph while allowing Mubarak to have his dignity is a very delicate balance which is not lost on Obama.
The administration has offered a show of respect for Mubarak’s stated concerns by saying that the administration is concerned that removing Mr. Mubarak too early could create constitutional problems that would establish a political void. It was also reported that Suleiman and top military officers were being encouraged to have detailed discussions with opposition groups, conversations that would ultimately include how to open up the political system, establish term limits for the president and enshrine some key democratic principles ahead of elections scheduled for September.
It also appears that Suleiman and his two close allies understand the delicacy of the situation. The article reports that they have said that they want to do this without spilling blood and without hurting the dignity of Egypt or Mubarak while fulfilling the demands of the masses. These are wise words, as they are focusing on the dignity of Mubarak, which is a key concern in the quest to avoid violence.
El Baradei is also aware of the importance of dignity: “We have no interest in retribution,” he said. “Mubarak must leave in dignity and save his country.”
Thus, there is understanding among some of the leaders who are playing a role in these events that the preservation of dignity (another way of describing “saving face” and a “graceful exit”) is key to achieving a peaceful result. Yet, knowing this, and finding a way to make it happen are not the same thing. Obama is trying to work with Mubarak on his stated terms and is trying to be both practical and to allow for a graceful exit that seems reasonably calculated to provide the results that can achieve both the objectives that the opposition seek and the kind of exit that Mubarak can live with. It is truly a delicate matter to pursue this course and bring the outraged and emotional opposition and the prideful Mubarak to the point of accepting this approach. To do this, Obama will have to focus on the needs of the opposition for certainty regarding the changes they seek. If Obama can do all this, it will be a triumph of conflict resolution.