United States Hedging Rhetoric on Egypt Protests

The Obama Administration finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whom to support publicly in Egypt’s protests.

Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Barack Obama of the United States speak at the White House in Washington DC, September 1, 2010
Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Barack Obama of the United States speak at the White House in Washington DC, September 1, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

My television has been tuned to CNN for the past 24 hours, and the footage that the network has been broadcasting (thanks to Al Jazeera and those brave Egyptians with cell phones) is nothing short of extraordinary. Young and middle aged Egyptian citizens from all walks of life are holding hands and shouting in unison, “down down with Mubarak.” The Egyptian government has issued a citywide curfew for Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in an attempt to regain some hold over the situation. Yet the protesters have thus far been undeterred.

As is expected, the situation inside Egypt is very fluid, a term that was used by the American State Department two nights ago during a press conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, through the Sunday talk show circuit, has urged the Egyptian government and the protesters to refrain from further violence, a standard neutral response from an administration that isn’t exactly sure how to proceed.

President Hosni Mubarak finally felt the urgency to stand up in front of a podium to address the Egyptian people, sacking his entire government and appointing a vice president for the first time in thirty years. President Barack Obama also made a brief speech immediately proceeding Mubarak’s remarks, calling on the Egyptian president “to take concrete steps and actions that deliver” toward political and economic reform.

It’s hard to predict what the Egyptian government will do in the immediate future, but if Mubarak’s initial counter to the demonstrators is any indication, the United States and the rest of the world should not be surprised if a broader political opening is stalled until the next presidential election. Mubarak’s stopgap concession to the protesters — sacking his cabinet and appointing new ministers — is a shallow strategy that won’t blunt their rage. The main objective of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians camping in downtown Cairo is clear: they want Mubarak to step down and cease control of the country.

The Egyptian people are not stupid. They recognized long ago that all of the ministers, regardless of personal charisma, are subservient to the president. The fact that Mubarak thinks that he can fool the Egyptians into believing that the replacement of a few party loyalists will change things in any substantial way is a testament to how separated he has become from his own people.

What the United States chooses to do will be crucial to what happens on the ground in the next couple of days. Apart from the commentators who say that the United States have nothing to do with the conflict, officials inside Obama’s foreign policy team will understand that a positive response is crucial.

This won’t be easy. The United States have had a thirty-year relationship with Mubarak and the Egyptian dynasty has become the most important Arab partner for Washington’s Middle East peace initiative.

Unfortunately, this tight knit relationship with Mubarak is a phenomenon that millions of Egyptians simply denounce. What Americans view as a valuable alliance for peace and security, Egyptians see as a deliberate American endorsement of Arab authoritarianism.

Whether the United States like it or not, the Arab world points to the $1.3 billion of American aid to Mubarak’s army as a sign of involvement in the crackdown. Indeed, some Egyptian protesters on the street have been quick to remind the region that the bulk of the army’s weapons are were made in the USA.

If the demonstrations continue and the Egyptian government is unable to impose order, the Obama Administration will find itself in a very awkward position, especially if the White House is not seen as being on the “right” side.

The worst thing President Obama can do is gamble by committing himself to either side though. Staunchly supporting Mubarak, only to find out the next day that he has fled the country, would portray the United States as a hypocritical nation that isn’t serious about spreading the values of democracy it espouses.

On the other hand, helping the protesters may sever the American-Egyptian partnership should Mubarak survive. The key is to find the right balance. The problem is how to get there.