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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.

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Ironically, despite economic growth and a modest rise in exports, Egypt is one of the few countries with which the United States actually has a trade surplus, and the amount Egypt owes far outweighs what is coming in. Average Egyptians have seen unemployment rise dramatically, with some estimates that as many as 10 million of the country’s 83 million citizens are out of work. Roughly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the number of children living in poverty has also increased. International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn had warned before the protests that although Egypt showed signs of macroeconomic growth, the high levels of inequality and unemployment were a “ticking time bomb” that could cause the explosive situation we are now seeing.

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The United States’ funding of a regime that allowed and committed such injustice does not mean that it must stand by Mubarak still today. Amid the tide of increasing contempt for Mubarak, the failure to quickly condemn such a regime, and clearly break off such a relationship, has backed the Obama administration into the same powerless corner as the despised Egyptian president. Only now does the administration seem to be stepping out of that corner.

Egyptians need wholehearted US support

The US must now lend its wholehearted support to the Egyptian people and the formation of a transitional government. The only way the US can truly align itself with this change is to pressure Mubarak to leave immediately. The lesson for the US is this: A secure alliance is not one that serves only the interests of a country’s diplomatic and business elite while ignoring the liberty and security of its citizens.

Above all, this uprising in Egypt, which now continues a trend of upheaval across the region, most recently in Jordan, should force Washington to take stock of its failed foreign policy. America’s past approach of paying lip service to democratic ideals, while continuing to prop up regimes that do nothing for their people, has not only escalated our unpopularity in the region but also made a mockery of the democratic principles we stand for.

The Obama administration spent too many days “tightrope walking,” clinging for too long to its old alliance with Mubarak. Even now, the White House may have let one “d”-word – democracy – into its official vocabulary for the crisis in Egypt, but the other “d”-word – dictator – remains unsaid. And that is the word that the Egyptian people care most about. Failed foreign policy like this may have already hurt US standing in the region, and for the US to play any positive role in the future Egypt, Washington must reframe its rhetoric and involvement going forward.

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Regardless of the shape that power in Egypt takes, the United States must reconsider its blanket support of presidents-for-life in the Middle East. Otherwise, we might do well to recall the words of President John F. Kennedy, who once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Rachel Newcomb is associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of "Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Life in Urban Morocco."


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