The US response to Egypt's protests

'Not much' probably sums it up best.

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.

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.

Shadi Hamid, who works on democracy promotion in the Arab world, had a prescient piece in the Atlantic yesterday morning (before the scope of Egypt protests was clear) in which he warned that:

"[the] Middle East just got more complicated for the Obama administration. The January 14 popular revolt in Tunisia, the first ever to topple an Arab dictator, has called into question a basic premise of U.S. policy in the Middle East - that repressive regimes, however distasteful, are at least stable... the U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protesters, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests."

Hamid points out, rightly, that US backing for the Mubarak regime is seen by protesters as an obstacle to reform, making it likely that, in the short-term at least, democracy in Egypt would yield outwardly anti-American governments.

Marc Lynch, writing at Foreign Policy, doesn't think the US response has been so bad – though he also says it feels like something important has shifted in Egypt and the US could miss an opportunity if it doesn't recognize the change:

"Obama was right in the past to not give in to the temptation to make empty declarations on Egyptian or Arab democracy which would not be met, thereby proving the U.S. either hypocritical or impotent. And the administration was right to focus, as I've long suggested, not on "democracy" but on civil society, economic opportunity, and the "Bill of Rights" freedoms (of speech and of assembly, transparency and accountability). But now conditions have changed, the potential for rapid transformations has appeared, and it's time for the administration to seize the moment to make a difference. For all the criticism he's received on democracy promotion, the Obama administration has now already overseen one more peaceful transition away from Arab authoritarian rule than under the entire Bush administration. It's no longer wishful thinking to suggest that it might not be the only one."

The public fury expressed at Mubarak and his family yesterday was stunning, with taboo-breaking images of his posters being ripped to shreds and "down with Mubarak" chants echoing in Egyptian cities.

Secretary Clinton's statement yesterday that the US "assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people" is belied by both that anger, and by the fact his government has failed for decades to curtail torture and other abuses of power by the authorities.

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