A Time for Leadership


The Obama administration’s response to the rapidly developing situation in Egypt has been, like its response to the protests that rocked Iran in June 2009, constantly evolving.  The administration initially was behind the curve, appearing to believe that Hosni Mubarak’s government was stable.  Even once their statements began to swing in the opposite direction, there were still discordant notes.  As he has often been known to do, Vice President Joe Biden raised eyebrows at home and abroad when he refused to call Mubarak a “dictator” and seemed to question whether the concerns of the protesters were “legitimate.”

The administration now appears to be distancing itself from Hosni Mubarak, even as the Egyptian President has made a pathetic last minute attempt to remain in power by firing his cabinet and naming the intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as his vice president.  These efforts will do nothing to calm the situation.  Omar Suleiman represents everything that is wrong with Mubarak’s Egypt.  It is now only a matter of time before the government collapses and Mubarak is swept aside. 

Recognizing this, the Bipartisan Working Group on Egypt released a statement on Saturday outlining a sensible list of recommendations that represent a reasonable way forward.

President Obama’s reluctance to firmly put the moral weight of the United States behind the protesters will not be remembered kindly, just as his failure to support democratic opposition groups during his first two years in office will be recalled by the Egyptian democrats who may soon take power.  President Obama tried to use Cairo as a prop in his efforts to engage the Muslim world, but he and leading administration officials refused to talk of democracy and refused, despite their desperate efforts now to rewrite history, to seriously pressure Mubarak to reform. 

It is worth remembering that less than one month ago, President Obama appointed former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Riccardone, to be the new U.S. ambassador to Turkey over the opposition of a number of Republican senators.  Riccardone was infamous for his statements about supposed freedoms in Egypt and the wisdom and greatness of Hosni Mubarak, who he once said at an event with Egyptian students, “could win elections in the United States as a leader who is a giant on the world stage.” 

Riccardone was the messenger for an amoral U.S. policy toward Egypt pursued for decades by administrations of both parties.  But the Obama administration was particularly egregious.  After seeds of progress were planted during the Bush administration, the Obama administration’s approach became “anything but Bush.”  During a trip to Egypt in November 2009 to attend a conference with democracy activists, I heard firsthand how these activists’ initial hopes about the young, articulate Barack Obama had been quashed as their U.S. funding and moral support disappeared.  The signs of U.S. disengagement were so clear that a security service minder taunted one of my activist friends, “If you need U.S. funding, let me know, we are close to the Americans.”

There will be much handwringing in the days to come about what type of Egypt will emerge after Mubarak.  Concerns about a militant Islamist regime are likely exaggerated.  There are moderate forces that will compete for political space with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Regardless, it is in the interest of the United States that the Egyptian people finally be free. 

The Obama administration will have an opportunity in the coming days to recover from its disastrous handling of this crisis over the last week and assist the transition of power away from Mubarak.  Let’s hope that this will be the moment when they finally end their habitual reluctance to stand up for freedom irrespective of where it manifests itself.  If they fail to do so, history will judge them harshly, for history is on the side of the young Egyptians taking to the streets.

 – Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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