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The US response to Egypt's protests

'Not much' probably sums it up best.

By Staff writer / January 26, 2011



President Obama ignored unfolding events in Egypt in his State of the Union speech last night (while praising the popular uprising in Tunisia that has created the chance of democratic reform there). Response from the rest of the US government has been muted.

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Staff writer

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday: "The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper."

In a statement today, US Ambassador Margaret Scobey slightly upgraded that talking point to include "we call on the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful public demonstrations."

So far, Egypt has responded to its "important opportunity" with tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings, and the arrest of hundreds of democracy activists and protesters. The regime has reiterated that unlicensed demonstrations are illegal and will be dealt with harshly. There has not yet been strong condemnation of Egypt's actions from US officials.

Nor have there been US calls for the regime of President Hosni Mubarak – who in November held Egypt's most fraud-ridden parliamentary election in decades – to accede to protesters demands: Step down, allow democracy, and immediately revoke the Emergency Law that has been used for years to detain and torture regime opponents and was recently renewed.

The reason why the US doesn't press Egypt on democracy is because Egypt's autocracy is friendly to US interests in the region. Since Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979, the US has provided about $28 billion in development aid to Egypt and also gives it a further $1.3 billion a year in military aid. Democracy or something else that might upend the established order could bring groups to power that aren't as friendly to the US.

The price of such bargains is that the stability becomes increasingly brittle with age, a system that doesn't allow meaningful political feedback from its citizens generally becomes more abusive, and more isolated from their real concerns over time. One day all seems well, the next a seemingly all powerful government has crumbled, as in Tunisia. The day after a bad regime falls, the reasons why seem clear. The day before, nobody knows what's about to happen.

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