It might have been reasonable to hope, some time ago, that Hosni Mubarak could have overseen a democratic transition in Egypt. But that is no longer the case.
On February 1, Mubarak promised on state television that he would not run for reelection in September’s scheduled presidential election. The next day, regime-sponsored thugs arrived by bus in downtown Cairo with axes, chains, and sticks, and a small stipend in their pockets. The day after that, the regime targeted foreign journalists for beatings. Human rights organizations were raided and their staffs imprisoned. A close reading of Mubarak’s speech, with its references to chaos and disingenuous calls for investigating the acts of violence and arson, reveals a mind in denial. “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now,” Mubarak told Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, even though it is he who is now the greatest threat to stability and order.
The situation remains in flux. As massive protests gathered steam across Egypt on February 4, there were signs that the military was showing its hand in favor of the democrats. Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, for example, went to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and mingled with the protesters. It was a hopeful, if tenuous, moment.
Whether or not clearer public statements from President Obama could have averted the abuses of the last few days, or still might help to accelerate and shape a democratic transition, our president has not made them. Since the beginning of the demonstrations two weeks ago, the Obama administration has moved from supporting Mubarak to recognizing that he must leave office. Yet it has not voiced this recognition publicly or clearly. White House statements have stressed evenhandedness and neutrality towards Mubarak’s fate. The effect has been more ambiguity than the situation demands.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. The president has done this before. In 2009, when Iranians took to the streets after fraudulent elections, President Obama remained aloof. He withheld support for the Green movement, apparently believing it would hurt the Persian democrats’ cause.
Last week, President Obama said, “It is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders.” Of course Egyptians should decide their future. That is why Mubarak must go. But it is also why, after three decades of backing Mubarak, an American president has an obligation to side with the Egyptian people.
It isn’t pleasant to say so, but for decades the United States has been a silent witness to Mubarak’s repression. The Egyptian dictator created a rationale for his rule and an excuse for the miserable state of his country. Only he, Mubarak insisted, guaranteed the peace with Israel and stood in the way of the Islamic jihad. The result was that Mubarak had every reason to perpetuate, rather than to solve, the problems upon which he rested his claim to power.
The consequence is Egyptian resentment and suspicion toward America. A human rights activist recently told us, “You only care about Israel.” Americans shouldn’t be surprised that Egyptians associate Israel and its American ally with Mubarak’s repression. Nor is it surprising that America is also associated with Mubarak’s strangling of political and civil liberties in the name of warding off Islamic extremism. American acquiescence to Mubarak’s rule worked against the very objectives that Americans seek.
Between 2002 and 2005, however, when Washington finally pressed Mubarak, he made a major concession, allowing the first ever direct presidential election. Egyptians remembered this, too, and wanted Washington to keep using its relationship with Mubarak to help them bring about democracy.
President Obama did not create America’s long dependence on Hosni Mubarak. Over the past 30 years American administrations of both parties have hoped to have it both ways—speaking about freedom and supporting civil society groups while ultimately siding with the Mubarak regime. But President Obama will be in charge when the relationship between America and Egypt changes dramatically. It’s time that he stop worrying about distancing himself from his predecessor and become more comfortable with the fact that American power and American leadership are involved—are perhaps even at stake—in Egypt. It is far too late to be evenhanded or neutral.
There is a place for behind-the-scenes negotiation, of course. But the Egyptian people will hear only what the American president says publicly. They need to hear directly from the president of the United States. They need to hear him commit to the future of Egyptian democracy.