Egypt protests: US speaks again, but no one seems to be listening

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's comments on the Egypt protests Friday call on President Hosni Mubarak to embrace reforms. But he hasn't paid the US heed during the crisis.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to the media following her meeting with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Washington Wednesday. On Friday, she made comments about the Egypt protests.

As protesters filled Egyptian streets Friday and defied a curfew, the United States toughened its calls for reforms but essentially left intact its makeshift approach to events in the key Middle East country: support for both the protesters and the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

“We want to partner with the Egyptian people and their government,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Friday. She called on the Mubarak government to restrain the police and security forces as a first order of business, and to move quickly to “economic, political and social reforms.”

The administration thus appears set on a course of ramping up demands for “meaningful reforms” as events intensify, but continues to hold back from uttering the words the thousands of protesters would like to hear most: support for a political “transition” in Egypt.

In any case, what the US has to say may matter less than some officials in Washington may think, with evidence mounting the Mubarak regime was paying little heed to Washington's words.

In brief comments at the State Department, Secretary Clinton repeated several times that the US sees itself as a “partner” of both the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government. And as a partner, the US, she said, has long encouraged the Egyptian government to “engage” with its own people, and was emphasizing that need now.

“The Egyptian government needs to engage with the Egyptian people,” Clinton said. “Violence will not make [their] grievances go away.”

Ignoring American counsel

The secretary also held the government accountable for the massive disruptions of communications across Egypt, including cellular communications and the Internet, and called for the repressive steps to be reversed.

“We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests, and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications,” she said.

Of course, how much American admonitions would be heeded remained doubtful, anyway.

Here’s a good measure of how hard the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is listening to the United States as it moves to put a lid on mounting street protests: On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton advised Egyptian authorities “not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.” On Friday, Mr. Mubarak’s response came back loud and clear: cut cell-phone communications, a downed Internet.

Actually the Mubarak government denied disrupting any communications, including the Internet. Still, an almost total drop-off in Internet traffic in and to and from Egypt occurred in the hours before massive street demonstrations Friday. At the same time, various cellular communications companies reported disrupted service.

As the regime sent security forces out Friday to repress the protests, it became crystal clear that Mubarak was not heeding the Obama administration’s advice any more than he was that of other foreign governments.

Can US abandon Mubarak?

In any case, the octogenarian leader could be forgiven for assuming that, despite some differences, he still has the underlying support of a US that needs Egypt as a partner in a volatile region, in a stalled Arab-Israeli peace process, and in staving off political Islam. Despite calling for “reforms” in Egypt, the US is still standing by its man, or its regime, apparently having settled on a policy of both supporting the protesters and nudging a friend towards concessions.

Vice President Joe Biden said it Thursday night: Hosni Mubarak is no dictator.

Some reports Friday said Mubarak was preparing to address the nation, but some opposition sources said Mubarak’s imposition of a curfew in the country’s largest cities was his message. In any case, many Egyptians and regional experts were anticipating that even if he does speak, he would offer a number of economic measures – food-price cuts perhaps, maybe public-sector jobs – as a means of quelling the protests. But nothing in the way of the political reforms President Obama says are “absolutely critical” to Egypt’s future.

If Mubarak does make some economic gestures, the US might endorse such half-measures, lauding them as something of a start on the road of needed “reforms.”

But in the end, it will probably matter little to the course of events in Egypt what the US has to say about Mubarak’s moves anyway.

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