I wish Commander in Chief Barack Obama had read the the army training manual on Arab culture his underlings do. He would have understood better Hosni Mubarak and avoided needlessly enraging America's Arab allies. For much of the misunderstandings engendered by the Egyptian president's de facto speech was related to Mubarak's desperate efforts to leave office without losing face.
The manual informs US soldiers that
Honor – Very Important amongst Arabs. Honor will be protected and defended at all costs.
Shame (especially against family) – avoided at all costs, insults and criticism taken very seriously.
Hosni Mubarak watched he humiliating manner long time Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced out after making a useless mea culpa speech. Mubarak vowed he will not follow in Bin Ali's footsteps, he will leave with his honor in tact. To do so, he will pretend that he had never intended to run for office again, that he had never intended to pass the presidency to his son and that he is presiding over an orderly transition of power. To implement this strategy, Hosni Mubarak appointed his first Vice President since taking office.
The question is and has been, will those seeking his ouster play along? Saudi king asked President Obama to play along and Vice President Suleiman asked the same of leaders of the opposition. On Tuesday, things seem to be falling into place. Then, some wannabe leaders like El Baradei, reporters elated by the street scenes and emboldened foreign and domestic interest group decided to upset the apple cart.
The trouble was that the American administration prevarications was causing Barack Obama to lose face and he decided to put himself first. Nothing made that choice clearer than the strange presidential decision not to wait for Mubarak to make the speech transferring power to his vice president but to go on record celebrating Mubarak departure before the Egyptian president announced it.
I do not know whether Obama's preemption affected the tone of Mubarak's speech but I would not be surprised to discover that it did. Mubarak delayed the release of the speech for some hours and when he finally made it, the speech was so focused on saving his honor that the chief message, his decision to transfer power, ended buried so deeply that it was lost effectively lost. The army was forced to take over the government officially.
Hosni Mubarak's efforts to leave with honor failed. Arab leaders will never forget nor I suspect forgive. Cultural sensitivity was supposed to have been Barack Obama forte. Unfortunately, he has proved to be culturally blind. America and the Western world, if not President Obama personally, are sure to pay the price.