Walk Like a Politician: Obama’s Failed Response To Egypt

There he stood at a podium in Cairo, the embodiment of hope and change. Just five months into his presidency, Barack Obama addressed the “Muslim world,” offering a new beginning after eight years of unpopular foreign policies in the region. Extolling the values of liberty and justice for all people, his story was one of common humanity and the undeniable right of mankind to determine its own destiny.

“Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away,” Obama said. He then acknowledged, without naming names, that there are “some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.” Notably absent from the pomp and circumstance (blazoned, of course, by Egyptian state TV) was Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak.

Amidst the optimistic overtures that characterized his highly anticipated speech, Obama failed to mention one important caveat, the paradox, in fact, of American politics: when beloved democratic values clash with not-so-democratic political interests, so much for freedom and the universal rights of mankind.

The recent uproar in Egypt provided the perfect opportunity for the Obama administration to honor its commitment to stand with freedom-seekers, to support self-empowerment of the repressed, and boldly reclaim the priority of principles over politics. Sadly, they have failed at each juncture.

On the day the protests in Cairo began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to call the Egyptian government “stable,” saying it was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Two days later, as the violence began to escalate and the regime’s crackdown blacked out phone lines and websites, Vice President Biden refused to call Mubarak a dictator, instead referring to him as an “ally” who should not, at that moment, step aside.

The crowds in Tahrir Square grew but the Obama administration’s willingness to stand up for the suppressed remained mute. On February 1, the day of the “Million Man March” in downtown Cairo, Obama, still not understanding the urgency of the protestors’ pleas, asked Mubarak not to seek reelection in September and that an orderly transition must begin “now.” There was much confusion about when “now” was scheduled to begin: the administration discussed the possibility of Mubarak's resigning “immediately” but then backtracked, urging instead for “concrete steps towards an orderly transition.”

As the death toll mounted, U.S. special envoy Frank Wisner said that “Mubarak must stay in office.” Days later, the U.S. threw its support behind Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s hand-picked Vice President whose history of torturing Egyptian prisoners sparked ire across the country.

After Mubarak announced a second time that he was not leaving Egypt but that he would hand power over to Suleiman, the newly appointed, American-backed Vice President told the protestors to “go home.” The words may very well have been Obama’s. “America doesn’t understand,” said Ibrahim Mustafa, a protestor in Tahrir Square. “The people know it's supporting an illegitimate regime.”

Despite the Obama administration’s ambivalent response to voices of democracy and an unwillingness to acknowledge what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now,” all is not lost. With Mubarak now out of the picture, the United States has another opportunity to stand with the Egyptian people and be the beacon of democracy and freedom it has long been hailed as.

Photo CreditJosiah Lau

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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