US Reaction to the Protests in Egypt

The Good Dictator

The United States' reaction to the ongoing protests in Egypt has been markedly different to its reaction to the popular protests in Iran 18 months ago. It also contrasts sharply with the vision of the world outlined by Obama in his speech in Cairo in June 2009. Joseph Mayton investigates why this is so

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.S. President Barack Obama (photo: AP)
According to Joseph Mayton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has done more for America than he has for Egypt and, for this reason, is "the Good Dictator" whom the US isn't ready to part with just yet

​​On 13 June 2009, hundreds of thousands of Iranians stood up against corruption in massive anti-government demonstrations after fraudulent elections that saw President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and his cronies retain their iron grip on power. On 25 January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets demanding an end to 30 years of corruption, torture and fear at the hands of their oppressor, President Hosni Mubarak.

The global reaction to the two events could not be more different. In 2009, Western leaders, including American President Barack Obama, were quick to express their support for the anti-government protesters, voicing absolute condemnation of Ahmedinejad and the Iranian government.

This time around, when a similar – arguably more widespread and larger – protest movement sprouted up in Egypt late last month, Washington was nearly silent, sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tell the world that Egypt was "stable" and that they were "watching the situation closely". The difference is that Hosni Mubarak is "the Good Dictator" whom the US isn't ready to part with just yet. He has done more for America than he has for Egypt, which leaves Washington in a bind.

Playing the political game

In 2009, Obama spoke out, saying "those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history". Today, Obama is calling for restraint and an end to violence on both sides of the protest lines. As Egyptians stand up for justice and freedom, Obama is playing the political game in attempting to maintain America's key ally in the Middle East instead of speaking out in favour of the millions demanding an end to dictatorship.

The scenes on the streets of Egypt are eerily similar to those of Iran two years ago. There are harrowing videos of demonstrators being attacked by government thugs and of individuals risking their very lives by standing in front of government vehicles, as well as images of death and destruction at the hands of Mubarak's security forces. Two weeks into the anti-government protests, Obama still seems unwilling to speak up for the people of Egypt as he was so willing to do in the case of Iran.

US President Barack Obama addresses an audience at Cairo University in 2009 (photo: AP)
Speaking in Cairo in 2009, President Obama called for a new beginning between the US and Muslims and spoke of the importance of freedom, justice and giving citizens the right to choose their own destiny. Many in Egypt now feel let down by the USA

​​The US wants Mubarak to stay. In Mubarak, the US has a friend in the Middle East who is more than willing to promote the American project in the region vis-à-vis Israeli interests. The fear among Washington diplomats and observers in the US is that allowing Mubarak to fall would lead to an Islamic revolution similar to that in Iran in 1979.

These commentators continue to portray the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt's most organised political force – as a radical conservative Islamist movement that seeks to make Islamic law the only rule of governance in Egypt and to implement a crackdown on non-Muslims. Commentators allege that the Muslim Brotherhood is in favour of censorship and repression and is anti-American and anti-women. It's easy to stoke fear in the American public when these issues are on the table – think Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. However, the Muslim Brotherhood is more complex and nuanced than that.

The group has been a staunch supporter of peaceful, democratic change in Egypt for much of the last decade, participating – when it can – in elections. Even throughout the revolution, it has been outspoken in its desire to see the Egyptian people choose their destiny and has likened its goals to the current form of governance in Turkey. They don't behave like firebrand Islamic radicals; however, in order to keep "the Good Dictator" in power, the argument against reason takes precedent.

Secular uprising

Talking with people in Cairo's Tahrir Square, I have repeatedly been told that this movement is "for all Egyptians and it is not led by the Muslim Brotherhood". On Sunday, tens of thousands of people – Christians and Muslims – held prayers for those who have fallen in the past two weeks. The unity and belief in their mission continues and in many cases is growing.

Protesters have largely condemned western media coverage, which they say is attempting to stir fears of a future Egypt by likening it to Iran. This, they say, is not the Egypt they are building.

In many ways, the lack of support from Washington has spurred on the protesters, giving them more strength to push on in their demands. "If Obama doesn't want to stand by us, we don't need him. Our cause is just, and we know it, so if he doesn't want to stand up against a dictator, so be it," said Mohamed, a 20-year-old university student.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square on 3 February 2011 (photo: AP)
"If Obama doesn't want to stand by us, we don't need him. Our cause is just, and we know it, so if he doesn't want to stand up against a dictator, so be it," says Mohamed, a 20-year-old university student involved in the protests in Egypt

​​Risk of an anti-American fallout

The worry that Washington should be feeling is that by continuing to tacitly stand by the ruling government and by calling for the newly appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, to lead the transition, they risk losing a country that has largely been positive towards the Obama administration.

When Obama spoke in Cairo in June 2009, he talked of the importance of freedom and justice, giving citizens the right to choose their own destiny. Egyptians are again disappointed that his words have proven empty. Attempts to maintain any form of the status quo in Egypt will lead to an anti-American fallout, not just among conservative Islamists, but also and most particularly among the secularists leading the movement.

"Made in the USA" tear gas canisters do little to buttress Obama's policy of putting the dictator ahead of the people's interests. The protesters are not bothered by the West's current reactions to the protests; they have bigger issues to deal with. Yet in the months to come, the policy of supporting Mubarak will not be forgotten by a new government and by 80 million people.

Even as Egyptians tell the world "united we stand", Washington seems willing to let them fall in favour of political interests in a region that has not had a voice of its own for far too long.

Joseph Mayton

© Qantara.de 2011

Joseph Mayton is an American journalist based in Cairo. He is the editor-in-chief of Bikyamasr.com.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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