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Washington Faces Delicate Balancing Act Amid Egypt Uprising

  • Heather Maher

Hosni Mubarak and Barack Obama meet in Washington in August 2009

Hosni Mubarak and Barack Obama meet in Washington in August 2009

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps nothing better captures the awkward position in which the United States finds itself in Egypt than a picture someone in Cairo posted on Twitter last week: a grenade that had been tossed by a member of the security forces into a crowd of demonstrators. Printed on its side were the initials “CSI” followed by “Made In The USA.”

The company that made that grenade, as well as the canisters of tear gas that antigovernment protesters in Egypt have been dodging for a week now, is Pennsylvania-based Combined Systems, Inc., an American company which, according to its website, “supports military forces and law-enforcement agencies around the world” with its products, which include “crowd control devices, irritant munitions, and pyrotechnic devices.”

Egyptian security forces have been lobbing these American-made crowd control devices at pro-democracy demonstrators in Cairo even as U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are calling on President Hosni Mubarak’s government to let the peaceful protests continue unchallenged.

As Mubarak struggles to keep his grip on power, the White House has been forced to confront the contradiction inherent in its policy toward Egypt. On the one hand, Cairo is Washington’s closest Arab ally and its partner in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; on the other hand, Mubarak has ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years, suppressing the very freedoms and basic human rights that Washington calls on its allies to protect.

Fears And Desires

It’s a policy the United States has long had with other autocratic governments in the region and one that reflects both fears and desires: the fear of regional destabilization and the desire to maintain regional American influence, the fear of Islamic extremists coming to power, and the desire to protect Israel.


As protests have spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan, critics say Washington’s complicity with oppressive regimes has been brought into sharp focus. As the Egyptian protests gathered strength last week, Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, wrote that “[American] support of Arab autocracies has boomeranged, producing a Middle East consumed by violence and extremism.”

Bruce Rutherford, author of “Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World,” says Washington's policies have cost it respect among reform-minded Arabs.

“The U.S. certainly has a very large credibility gap when it comes to issues of democratization in the Arab world. We’ve talked about the importance of democracy and human rights for years but when we’ve had to make practical decisions about whom to work with in order to achieve our goals, we’ve almost always backed autocrats who have very little interest in democracy,” Rutherford said.

Since the crisis in Egypt began, the Obama administration has chosen its words carefully, attempting to calibrate the right amount of distance needed to put between itself and the hated Mubarak regime. U.S. officials have expressed support for the protests while calling on the regime to respond with concrete steps that address the range of economic, political, and social ills plaguing Egypt.

Clinton made a round of media appearances on January 30 to reinforce that message. Speaking to the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, she said of the past three decades in Egypt: "The path that has been followed has not been one that has created that democratic future, that economic opportunity that people in the peaceful protests are seeking."

And on the U.S. news program Meet The Press, she cast Washington’s position as historically on the side of democracy. "America's message has been consistent. We want to see free and fair elections and we expect that that will be one of the outcomes of what is going on right now," Clinton said.

Leaked Cables

That position is borne out in two years worth of leaked cables from Margaret Scobey, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. In a characteristic cable from December 12, 2008 from Scobey to General David Petraeus, who was about to meet with Mubarak, she writes: “Mubarak now makes scant public pretense of advancing a vision for democratic change. An ongoing challenge remains balancing our security interests with our democracy promotion efforts.”

But in the U.S. vision, it seems, freedom and reform would come about calmly and peacefully, not after beatings and tear gas in the street. As the deaths mount, the question has to be asked: did Washington really think the region’s regimes would allow democracy in without a fight?

Audience members listen to a translation through headphones of U.S. President Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University in June 2009

Middle East watchers agree that what’s happening in Egypt -- and in other countries ruled by autocratic regimes across the region -- has been a long time coming. Large youth populations, few employment opportunities, poverty, oppression, and corruption created an untenable status quo.

The spreading unrest is making other Arab nations nervous. Saudi Arabia this past weekend condemned the Egyptian demonstrators and threw its support behind Mubarak. A statement from King Abdulla bin Abdulaziz al-Saud characterized the protests as the work of “instigators” who “in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt to destabilize its security.”

For now, Egyptians are caught up in trying to topple their own government; no one is burning American flags in the streets of Cairo. But Rutherford says if a new government comes to power, Washington might find itself in a somewhat diminished relationship with its stalwart Arab ally. Not just in Egypt, but across the region.

“It’s going to be a real challenge for the U.S. to gain greater credibility going forward, if in fact the events lead to some sort of popular revolution," he said. "It’s going to take some real effort for the U.S. to gain credibility as a sincere supporter of democracy and human rights in the region."

Lifting Hopes

It’s a scenario few could have imagined when President Obama chose Cairo as the place to deliver a major foreign policy speech just a few months after taking office. On June 4, 2009, he “dramatically raised expectations for U.S. policy in the Middle East,” says the Brookings Institute's Hamid.

Listening again to Obama on that day in Cairo is like hearing a check-list of the reasons Egyptians took to the streets.

“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind, and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law, and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent, and doesn’t steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas, they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere,” Obama said.

Stirring words that lifted the hopes of the Arab world, but didn’t last, Rutherford says.

“There’s been particular disillusionment with President Obama. There was a great deal of optimism when he first came into office that he would transform U.S. policy toward the region, and inaugurate a new era, and he didn’t do that," he said. "So there’s a real sense among many Egyptians, I think, that there’s a disconnect between American rhetoric and American action."

American action could well be in for a course correction, given the magnitude of upheaval under way.

For now, U.S. policy can’t keep up with developments, which are moving rapidly. The State Department seems to struggle each day to offer the press corps a fully considered reaction to events on the ground: a new cabinet is appointed, the army appears to side with the people, the vice president says he will negotiate.

It’s hard to find a U.S. policy watcher willing to predict what will happen next -- the phrase "anything can happen" is being used a lot: a protracted period of street demonstrations, a deal that allows Mubarak to stay in power until his term ends later this year, a sudden collapse of the regime, or a broad-coalition of opposition figures in a transitional government.

For now, Washington seems to be remaining politically neutral: staying firmly on the side of the democracy protesters, waiting for events to play out.

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