United States Cautious to Support Egypt Protests

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems reluctant to pick sides in Egypt’s protests.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington DC, May 18, 2010
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington DC, May 18, 2010 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

As tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Egypt’s major cities again on Sunday, the United States are wondering what impact the unrest and possible regime change could have on American foreign policy in the region. For thirty years, Egypt has been a factor of stability in the Middle East and it continues to play an instrumental role in both advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and containing Iran.

President Barack Obama responded to the demonstrations after speaking with his Egyptian counterpart by phone on Friday night. He said that the Egyptian people are entitled to determine their own destiny and he denounced the violence. “Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people,” he said.

And suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. What’s needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people: a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people.

The United States have much at stake in Egypt. Every year, Washington invests several billions of dollars in the country, much of which is allocated to sustaining Egypt’s armed forces which are among the strongest in the region.

The protests thus pose a dilemma for Washington where officials are unsure whether to embrace them as the rising of a democratic vanguard or signs of temporary unrest that will eventually be suppressed by the regime.

The situation is complicated by the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt’s largest opposition movement despite being officially banned. Some observers believe that the organization has moderated in recent years but formally, it continues to support the implementation of Islamic law.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to such worry on Fox News Sunday where she professed that the United States “want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void” of political power. “We don’t want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy but to oppression,” she added.

While Clinton noted that the United States have been urging reform for decades, she wouldn’t condemn President Hosni Mubarak outright. His role in the peace process, she said, may have saved many lives, including Egyptian lives.

The secretary similarly recognized Mubarak’s contributions to regional stability on NBC’s Meet the Press but “much more has to be done,” she said.

On the same program former Middle East peace negotiator and ambassador to Israel for President Bill Clinton, Martin Indyk, noted the possible similarities with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. “We do not want to be on the wrong side of history like we were with the shah,” he said. America’s strong support for the monarch was partly responsible for the alienation that occurred between Iran and the United States once the ayatollahs took power.

Indyk wasn’t optimistic about the 82-year old president’s chances. “The contact with his people has been broken,” he said. It cannot be put together again.” Indyk urged the military leadership as well as the former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, whom Mubarak appointed vice president yesterday, to tell the president to resign and announce elections within six months.

Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei, who was placed under house arrest immediately after he returned to Egypt two days ago, agreed that the country needed “a government of national salvation, in coordination with the army.” He told ABC’s This Week that the United States should abandon Mubarak and “side with the people” instead.

According to ElBaradei, the Muslim Brotherhood is not an extremist organization. “They are no way using violence,” he said. “They are not a majority of the Egyptian people. They will not be more than maybe 20 percent of the Egyptian people.” ElBaradei believes that they have to be included in a future political arrangement nevertheless, like evangelic groups and religious orthodox are in other countries.