Arab regimes responded to the anti-regime turbulence in Egypt and the Obama administration's hand in it with almost universal shock and disbelief. Incredibly, Arab and Israeli reactions were nearly identical.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources describe the shock as more extreme and profound than the waves made by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Saddam Hussein's overthrow.
The only Arab leader who drew conclusions from Saddam's fate in good time was Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi. He feared then that because of his weapons of mass destruction, he would be next in line for an American exercise in regime change and lost now time in telling Washington he was willing to dump it all. He offered to hand over the materials and equipment of his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, inside intelligence on the workings of the nuclear black market run by Pakistan's Dr. Abdul Qader Khan and everything he knew about the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
Qaddafi decided that handing it all over was the only way to save his skin and stay in power.
Even so, eight years later, he is not sure how safe he is given the latest events in Cairo.
In February 2011, after witnessing the fate befalling America's main ally in the region, Hosni Mubarak, there is hardly a ruler in the Middle East, including Israel, who would not think twice before joining hands with Washington in any strategic endeavor. His ouster is decried as a scary American conspiracy to "dump Mubarak" and bring the Muslim Brotherhood into Egyptian government.
Arab ruling circles point out that the Egyptian protest movement's opening steps on Jan. 29 were launched exactly one week after Lebanese President Michel Suleiman entrusted Najib Miqati, the candidate backed by Iran, Syria and Hizballah, with forming a government in Beirut.
They noted that the Americans abandoned another pro-Western Prime Minister Saad Hariri to his fate after his government was toppled by Miqati's backers. So Mubarak was not the first in the series and may not be the last.
Above all, Arab rulers and their military and intelligence chiefs admit they are completely baffled by Obama's Middle East policies and hard put to understand what he hopes to achieve.
Wild Arab theories to account for Obama's actions in Egypt
The only three explanations they are coming up with to account for Washington's conduct in Egypt exposes the gap in perception between the Arab world and the White House in Washington:
1. The Obama administration struck in Cairo to pre-empt a coup against the Mubarak regime after receiving intelligence that it was ready to go. This tip-off was corroborated on the second day of the uprising, Wednesday, Jan. 26.
Senior administration sources denied to DEBKA-Net-Weekly that they had planned in advance of the disorders in Egypt to oust Mubarak. But when the Americans saw he was finished anyway, they jumped aboard the opposition coup for the sake of salvaging US influence in Cairo; or
2. Washington seeks to radicalize Egypt, the biggest Sunni Muslim country in the region, to lead a fundamentalist Sunni coalition and spearhead a major challenge of the Iranian-led Shiite bloc.
The proponents of this theory argue that Washington is using Egypt to counter Iranian moves in the last two months for drawing Iraq into the Shiite orbit. They also suggest Cairo is being built up as a mainstream Sunni center able to tempt Turkey and its prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, into forsaking his ties with Iran and joining an Egyptian-led Sunni alliance.
3. Just as the US invasion of Iraq and Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003 were the centerpiece of the Bush regime's military and diplomatic policies, so Obama is seeking to make the Mubarak regime's removal the linchpin of his external policy – with one difference: Bush used military might to achieve his prize whereas Obama is determined to prove to history and the American people that he can succeed by dint of pure diplomacy without the force of arms.
Pledging political reforms and financial handouts
These theories, which are making the rounds of Arab capitals, may be completely off beam. Washington's motives in starting a revolution in Egypt may be quite different. But the truth does not matter because they are gaining ground and wide acceptance in Arab ruling circles.
Even in Israel, Washington's closest and strongest ally in the region, where media criticism of US policy is rarely heard, the barriers have come down. The US president is accused these days of major blunders in Egypt and bringing Israel into extreme peril. These views are aired freely by none other than the heads of Israel's external spy agency Mossad and Military Intelligence, as well as eminent Middle East experts of the academic world and retired generals.
Middle East rulers ended the turbulent week bracing for three highly unwelcome sequels to the Egyptian disorders: The escalation of domestic violence in Egypt verging on civil war; the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in Cairo, and, finally more unpredictable American steps in the region which may sow more mayhem.
In Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, whose regimes range from unstable to shaky, long-serving kings and presidents are promising political reforms and economic benefits right and left.
In the extreme case of Yemen, President Abdullah Saleh's pledge not to run again when his third terms runs out in 2013 or appoint his son has not pacified the crowds of protesters in the streets.
Syria's Bashar Assad, who appears to be more firmly ensconced in the saddle than most others, is taking no chances. The heads of his secret military and security services are in a high state of preparedness ready to crush the slightest manifestation of protest, civil disobedience or military plots, before they develop.
In Israel and Jordan, preparations are afoot to anticipate the biggest security threat in sight – the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt.