The US attempt to reposition itself as a supporter of democracy and human rights in the Middle East is being undermined by a growing Egyptian perception that Washington will back Egypt's military junta unreservedly despite its increasing repressiveness.
That perception was reinforced yesterday, when a White House statement on the clashes between protesters and security forces appeared to place the blame equally on both sides for violence that has killed at least 29 protesters since Saturday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US was "deeply concerned" about the violence and "tragic loss of life" and called for "restraint on all sides, so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt.”
That call for restraint on “all sides,” in the face of days of excessive use of force by police and soldiers, was met with incredulity in Cairo. Security forces have shot not only tear gas and rubber bullets, but bird shot and live ammunition at protesters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
“Should we stop dying? Is that how we should show restraint?” scoffed protester Salma Ahmed as heavy gunfire echoed through Tahrir Square.
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In recent months, Egypt’s military rulers have become increasingly repressive – torturing with impunity, jailing bloggers, sending more than 12,000 civilians to military tribunals, and using excessive force against protesters, killing dozens. Yet as the abuses have stacked up, the US has mostly refrained from public criticism of Egypt’s military, whose $1.3 billion in US aid could come under review if critics in Congress prevail. Washington's relative silence has created the appearance that the US has returned to its Mubarak-era policy of turning a blind eye to its ally’s abuses to preserve the relationship.
“We can't fall into the position where it looks like we've given the SCAF a blank check,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York. “If this doesn’t change soon, the United States is going to be in a very difficult position because it'll be seen to have not learned any of the lessons of the Arab Spring. And we'll be right back where we started – supporting stability for stability's sake, even in light of the continuation of many of the same practices that triggered the whole uprising to begin with.”
Why the US has avoided public criticism
In May, as revolutions and uprisings were sweeping the Arab world, President Obama gave a speech pledging support for the region’s struggle for freedom.
“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be. … The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region,” he said.
In the ensuing months, the US has issued limited statements criticizing the use of military trials and the military’s failure to repeal the emergency law, a hated tool of repression under Mubarak. More recently, the military’s attempt to cement far-reaching powers and ensure it is largely unaccountable to civilian rulers prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue an indirect warning to the generals in a speech.
Yet the US has said little in public to condemn repression and use of violence by Egypt’s rulers. Its reticence is rooted in its fear of losing access to and influence on the military council at a delicate time of transition. US officials also appear to have decided that the military is the only glue holding together a very tenuous security situation in Egypt, which borders key US ally Israel and controls the Suez Canal, a crucial shipping corridor.
Some Egyptians say the US policy of playing it safe to preserve access is a cop out. Mr. Hanna says the US has enough leverage to play a more constructive role without jeopardizing its relationship with the military rulers. And regardless of how much influence it might have, the US should be clear that it does not condone repression, he says.
“I think even in the instances where we might not be able to radically shift policy or influence policy, I think it’s important that we lay out our own red lines, because it's important that we be clear about things we're not OK with,” he says.
More influence in private conversations?
US officials have regular contact with the military generals, and may feel they can exert the most influence in private, where some say they have recently stepped up their warnings.
US State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said in a written statement to the Monitor, sent before the most recent clashes, that the US does talk about rights issues in private conversations with Egyptian leaders.
“As we do with any other country, we raise concerns with human rights in Egypt on a regular basis, both publicly and privately,” he said. “We are also committed to helping Egypt as it navigates a path to democratic elections.”
But US officials have also consistently and publicly expressed confidence in the ability and performance of the military council to handle the transition period.
The US “cannot have it both ways,” says Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The US cannot maintain its approach over the past months of expressing confidence in the SCAF, and at the same time, raising specific issues like emergency law or military trials. It is faced with a choice between either supporting the SCAF or supporting pro-reform voices.”
She called Monday’s statement shocking. “I think that quote either shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation on the ground, or shows something more sinister, which would be, yet again, unconditional support for the SCAF at the expense of the loss of life of the protesters,” she said, adding that she leans toward the first interpretation.
Egyptians to US: Keep your hands out of our country
Indeed, it is unclear whether US officials have taken into account the popular perception of such statements. Hanna of The Century Foundation says they do not appear to understand how American policy is perceived at street level.
“I think there's an important perception gap that US policymakers don't seem to have a handle on, in that they don't understand that people view their policy as essentially a reprise of Mubarak-era policy with filling in for the SCAF,” he says.
To make the US approach more complicated, the prevailing mood in Egypt is decidedly hostile to foreign interference. Many Egyptians, fed up with 30 years of what they perceived as Mubarak doing the bidding of the US at the expense of the national interest, hoped their leaders would chart a more independent course after the uprising. In that environment, some don’t want to see any statements from the US at all.
“We reject any foreign intervention,” says Mohamed Abdullah, a protester in Tahrir square, when asked about the US position in his country’s rulers. “We want America to leave us alone, stay out.”