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.

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.

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.

Egypt protests: people to watch

Since Mubarak has crushed political dissidents who attempted to oppose him through legitimate channels, this kind of decentralized uprising also makes perfect sense. The State of Emergency that has existed since 1981 when Mubarak instated it, allows the government to detain people indefinitely and without due process if they are deemed a threat to the security of the state. Reports of torture are common and well documented by international human rights groups. Considering this history, this spontaneous revolt via Facebook and Twitter is the only kind of wily, back-door operation that could have succeeded.

Threat of Islamist takeover?

We have also heard the specter of Islamist takeover raised in favor of maintaining Mubarak, if even for the short-term. The threat of Islamists has offered carte blanche for Middle Eastern leaders to use as an excuse for shady detainments and extraordinary renditions, all with the United States’ effective or explicit blessing. Assertions of an Islamist boogeyman, which call up images of the Iranian revolution and ayatollahs standing in the wings waiting to execute iron-fisted sharia law, play well on American fears.

Any friendly dictatorship, or so the argument goes, is better than an Islamist one. Islamist threats lend themselves to army coups, civil wars, repression, and instability (we need only to look at Algeria in 1992 and the Palestinian Territories in 2006) and not, as we might hope, democracy.

A complicated history

Complicating the US stance on Mubarak has been its own role in maintaining his regime for so long. Egypt is one of the highest recipients of US aid in the world. The tidy $1.3 billion annually offered in military aid is largely dedicated to domestic security. Economic aid, on the other hand, often ends up with influential financiers, whose family-owned corporations produce goods that the majority of the population cannot afford. In Cairo over the past two decades, IMF funds sparked a building boom, where developers snagged subsidized public land and built gated communities, glittering shopping malls, and high-rise apartment complexes, many reserved for the elite.

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.

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."