Message to America: Hands off Egypt!

After decades of backing autocrats, the best thing Washington can do for the cause of Egyptian democracy is to butt out.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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It is inspiring to see the Egyptian people rebelling against the Mubarak regime and demanding democracy. They should be fully supported. At the same time, however, it is hard to predict where all of this is headed, especially given the lack of clear leadership among the opposition forces.

The US, of course, has been a big supporter of Hosni Mubarak, and Egypt has played a key role as a bulwark for America’s policy in the Middle East. The White House, via press secretary Robert Gibbs, said on Friday that it would undertake a review of the nearly $1.5 billion it provides in assistance to Egypt. However, by Sunday, the administration backtracked, indicating that it would not cut military aid to Egypt.

In response to the protests, the Obama administration has stated its support for democratic rights. ‘The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny’, said Obama at his press conference on Friday. But he did not completely ditch America’s long-time ally Mubarak and come out in full-throated support of the opposition. And his administration has couched its caution as a desire not to be seen to be meddling in the affairs of another nation.

The refrain from the White House is ‘it is up to the Egyptian people’. Obama asserted: ‘Now ultimately, the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people.’ Similarly, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, when asked about Mubarak’s future, said it was up to the Egyptian people.

These references to the Egyptian people make it seem as if Washington is taking a non-interventionist stance. If only. In reality, Washington has been deeply involved in Egypt for decades, and is now trying to ensure that the outcome will suit US interests.

Obama made it clear that, despite references to the Egyptian people, he, too, has a role in the future of Egypt. For a start, he lectured Mubarak on how to behave. At his press conference, he revealed the message he had relayed to Mubarak during a recent phone call: ‘When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech, and told him to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.’

On the Sunday talk shows, Clinton called for ‘an orderly transition’ to a more politically open Egypt. She said: ‘What we are now focused on is a transition that will meet the needs of the Egyptian people and that will truly establish democracy, not just for one election and then no more elections after that, or not for radicals, extremists, violent elements to take over.’ Presidential elections in September might be a possible time for a new government, she added.

But who are Obama or Clinton to set conditions on how Egypt should ‘transition’? Maybe those ‘Egyptian people’ they continually refer to have other ideas. Maybe they are not inclined to listen to leaders of the country that has supported their despised dictator for so long.

Even though the Obama administration is deeply involved in Egypt, some are calling on it to do more. These critics have heard the message ‘it’s up to the Egyptian people’ and think it is far too passive a posture for Washington to adopt.

Across the spectrum, there are calls for the US to get more engaged in shaping the outcome in Egypt. On one side, there are the traditional foreign-policy types who speak unashamedly of American interests and of adopting an anti-Islam stance, rather than promoting democratic rights. They urge the administration to be active – either to bolster Mubarak or to find someone else to do the America’s bidding. In particular, this group is raising fears that Egypt will become another Iran, or that elections will result in support for Islamists, like Hamas in Palestine.

On the other side, there are those who fully support democratic rights in Egypt and who want to see the US play a leading role in bringing about democratic change. As many put it, the US should place itself ‘on the right side of history’. These advocates criticise the White House for not going far enough, for not calling for Mubarak to step down.

The conservative journalist, Claire Berlinski, for instance, writes in Ricochet: ‘Every bit of my heart, as an American and a human being and someone who deeply believes in democracy and human rights, is on the side of Egyptians who want exactly the rights and freedoms and opportunities all Americans take for granted. And we should say so to Mubarak: Do not touch another hair on the head of another protester, or you will face the wrath of the United States.’

The reality, however, is that Washington has been far too involved in Egypt, to the detriment of the much-praised Egyptian people. Calling on the US to be the responsible daddy and sort things out among the squabbling kids is unrealistic as well as patronising.

Alex Pareene in Slate rightly bemoans that ‘our national narcissism is infecting every corner of the debate’ on Egypt. The common thread linking all sides is a call for the US to act: ‘People on CNN and people on Twitter both demand that Barack Obama and the State Department “do something” about the demonstrations. Announce our support for democracy! Use diplomatic voodoo to make Mubarak step down! Prop up a new Egyptian leader and somehow make this revolution spread to Iran!’

What’s arguably even more problematic is that it appears that this appeal to Washington to take the lead is affecting the outlook of the Egyptian opposition. The New York Times reported on Monday that Muslim Brotherhood and secular oppositionists had agreed that Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN inspector, would represent them. The Times begins by admitting that ElBaradei represents no one but himself – ‘lacking in deep support on his own’ – but goes on to say that ElBaradei ‘could serve as a consensus figure for a movement that has struggled to articulate a programme for a potential transition. [The selection of ElBaradei] suggested, too, that the opposition was aware of the uprising’s image abroad, putting forth a candidate who might be more acceptable to the West than beloved in Egypt.’

‘Acceptable to the West’: that’s the criteria for a new leader?

Mubarak has announced that he will step down in September; the timing of his departure is also the work of American intervention. As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says, such intervention, even though it takes an anti-Mubarak form, could harm the democratic moment in Egypt: ’This choreography – sending former diplomat Frank Wisner to get Mubarak to say he won’t run for reelection – will… come across in Egypt as collusion between Obama and Mubarak to distract the public with a half step; it will be interpreted as dissing the democracy movement once again. This will feed the narrative that it’s the United States that calls the shots in the Mubarak regime, and that it’s the United States that is trying to outmaneuver the democracy movement.’

The future really is up to the Egyptian people. They were the ones who courageously took to the streets and put the possibility of Mubarak’s departure and the introduction of democracy on the agenda in the first place. They remain in the driver’s seat – they will tell Obama and Clinton when the next elections will be held, not the other way around. No good can come from calling on Washington to play a greater role in Egypt, for whatever end. The US has done plenty of damage for far too long; the best thing it can do now is get out of the way.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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