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Why Obama's position on Egypt's Mubarak was too little, too late

The Obama administration's delayed public call for an 'orderly transition of power' followed days of equivocating that hurt US standing in the region. The White House must now take stock of its failed foreign policy so as not to further jeopardize its role in the new Egypt.

By Rachel Newcomb / February 2, 2011

Winter Park, Fla.

The images that have come out of Egypt over the past week are stunning: tens of thousands of largely unarmed protestors facing tanks, teargas, and live ammunition and who are still demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down. But throughout the upheaval, the United States response has been guarded, if not inadequate. After days of tepid statements and measured acknowledgements of the Egyptian people’s “legitimate grievances,” even an eventual call for “free and fair elections,” the Obama administration would still not publicly call for Mr. Mubarak’s departure.

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IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests

Only after Mubarak announced yesterday that he would be stepping down after the elections in September did President Obama call for “an orderly transition” that “must begin now.” Such a decisive position is long overdue, and in the days to come, the White House must take stock of the fears, the arguments, and historical alliance that delayed such a public response. Not only has the administration’s official silence on Mubarak made America seem grossly out of touch with the realities faced by Egypt’s struggling population, it may have jeopardized any future role the US might play in the people's new Egypt, and even in the region as a whole. Washington must now make amends.

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There were (and still are) plenty of opinions peddled around as to why the US shouldn’t have called for Mubarak’s immediate departure – even why the US should help him stay in place. Chief among these are worries of anarchy, based on the lack of unified opposition, and the possible rise of Islamic extremists. Others argue that the United States’ historical and financial ties with the Mubarak regime made abruptly cutting ties difficult. A careful look shows that these concerns shouldn’t have halted the US stance on Egypt.

Fears of anarchy don't hold

Even as a loose coalition in support of Mohamed ElBaradei formed this weekend, observers continue to remark at the formless, chaotic quality of the protests. The fact that protesters appear to be without one leader or a recognizable ideology is often cited, as if this somehow makes protestors’ demands less legitimate. Yet it is also an indication of Egyptians’ desperation that they have been willing to risk lives and livelihoods to protest a ruler whose 30 years in office has left many of them worse off than they were before. Ignoring this desperation has only intensified their cries. Protesters burning Mubarak’s effigy in the street made their central demand clear: Mubarak must go, now, not in eight months.


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