The Obama administration’s reaction to the massive demonstrations and government crackdown in Egypt has been inconsistent, awkwardly changing from day to day. Instead of supporting the protesters and their pleas for democracy and reform, the administration staked out a position last week supporting the existing hard-line regime. Five days later, the administration completely reversed itself. This kind of leadership makes the U.S. appear weak and vacillating, and is all too characteristic of liberal Democrats who lack strong principles when it comes to freedom and democracy.
The protests were precipitated by the dictatorial actions of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak. In the weeks leading up to last November’s elections, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party restricted the press and jailed dozens of opposition members. Mubarak’s reelection was widely regarded as rigged. The Obama administration barely said a word. Pro-reform activists planned a protest to begin on January 25, 2011, “Freedom Revolution Day,” organizing tens of thousands of Egyptians to rally in the streets until the 82-year old Mubarak agreed to resign his 30-year rule and give in to their demands for freedom, rights and justice.
Mubarak responded to the protesters by shutting down internet access and limiting cell phone access. He ordered the military onto the streets with tanks, and implemented a curfew, but it has been ignored. The protesters have stood firm, setting fire to police stations and offices of the National Democratic Party. Over 100 people have been killed and thousands injured.
Two days after the clash started, Vice President Joe Biden sided with Mubarak’s crushing of human rights, declaring that Mubarak is not a dictator and should not step down. Outraged, conservatives and human rights activists demanded that the administration cut aid to Egypt until Mubarak stopped the crackdown. Backing down, the Obama administration said it would “review” current assistance. Then the administration distanced itself even further from Mubarak, calling for the regime to unblock internet access. Hillary Clinton asked Mubarak to embrace political reform and democracy. Most recently, Obama called on other world leaders to discuss supporting an “orderly transition” to a new regime.
The Obama administration changed its position because it realized Mubarak will not likely withstand the protests. Soldiers are siding with the protesters and not enforcing the curfew. The military noticeably protected buildings like the Egyptian Museum, but not the NDP headquarters. In past nonviolent revolutions, the willingness of the military and police to fire upon protesters has played a pivotal role in determining the success of the protests.
Mubarak fired his cabinet and named the intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as his vice president, and the former air force chief and minister of aviation, Ahmed Shafiq, as prime minister. The moves are widely seen as futile, merely shuffling around all too familiar players. Suleiman is fiercely loyal to Mubarak.
The U.S. considered Egypt a friendly regime under Mubarak, providing it with billions of dollars of aid over the past 30 years. Last year the U.S. gave the regime $1.3 billion, and this year the Obama administration is requesting $1.5 billion in aid. U.S. F-16s and tanks are being used by the government in the crackdown. The protesters are concerned that U.S. aid is preventing them from toppling the regime. Crowds chanted, "Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans." However, other protesters carried posters that said, “America, we don’t want to hurt you,” making a distinction between the U.S. and Mubarak’s regime.
If Mubarak steps down, there is some concern that he would be replaced with a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship, merely trading a secular dictatorship for an Islamic one. The economic failure of a country can leave it susceptible to radical Islamist extremists taking over. The Muslim Brotherhood is supporting Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei for president. A recent Pew poll of Egyptians found that 59 percent prefer “Islamists” and only 27 percent prefer “modernizers.” 20 percent said they like al Qaeda, 30 percent like Hezbollah, and 49 percent like Hamas. Many believe, however erroneously, that the Brotherhood would increase freedom rather than limit it.
The Brotherhood is banned in Egypt, although members have been elected to parliament as independents. The Brotherhood denounces al Qaeda and violent Islamic extremism. However, if the Brotherhood ends up in power, it could erode the 30 years of stability brought about by the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Mubarak has taken a moderate approach towards Israel, which has served to restrain other Arab states. For these reasons, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ambivalent about whether a regime change in Egypt at this time would be in Israel’s best interests.
With Mubarak’s resignation likelier than not, it is imperative that the Obama administration come out strongly on the side of the protesters advocating for democracy and reform. The U.S. must send a message to Egypt that it supports democracy and objects to the suppression of freedom, whether by secular or theocratic regimes.