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JANUARY 28, 2011 3:35PM

Egypt and Tunisia - A Tale of Two White Houses

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Note: This piece was originally published on January 28th at Here It Is.  Read more at wearenow.wordpress.com

Updated below.

Secretary of State Clinton called for the Egyptian Government to "open a dialogue" with the people of Egypt today.  It was, by far, the strongest statement yet from the Administration.  To this point the President has searched for balance, calling for calm in the streets and the mechanisms for people to express legitimate grievances.   Vice President Biden wouldn't label Hosni Mubarak a dictator.   Mubarak has been President for 30 years - he was appointed after the assassination of Anwar El-Sadat.

Mubarak "wins" sham "elections" every six years.  The first three re-elections featured no challenger because of restrictions in the Egyptian constitution.  After increasing domestic and international pressure, the process was opened up in 2005 and Mubarak faced several challengers.  Unfortunately the election systems and state security services are controlled by the President.  Allegedly illegal votes were cast, votes bought, and unsurprisingly Mubarak won.  The results were disputed and dissidents and leaders of opposition parties were convicted and thrown into prison.  During these protests Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet have been shut down.  Journalists have been beaten and summarily detained, the police have become violent with protesters.  If this isn't a dictatorship, what is?

Contrast this with the President's response to the events in Tunisia.  Even as protests were beginning in Egypt, the President praised the protesters in Tunisia, as he should have - "We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people."  The President also mentioned U.S. support for and assistance with the vote for independence for Southern Sudan.  Tunisia and Sudan were remarkable moments.  People striving to be free have grabbed their destiny with both hands and demanded change.  We rightly support that.

Cairo is buring right now and it is just as historic as Tunis, and even more important. The United States fully supports the protesters fighting for freedom like we did in Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, and Kosovo.

Unless, of course, those people demonstrating and fighting for freedom happen to live under the rule of a friend of ours.  Egypt has been an important ally for the U.S.  for years.  We like the stability of a less than democratic leader in a nation that has helped us in negotiations with other Arab nations, the wars, and even the Israel/Palestine issue.  This, of course, undermines the messages we project about freedom and democracy.  We label Egypt a republic because, technically, it is - but what republic allows the same leader to remain in power for thirty years?  What republic allows that same leader to groom his son to replace him rather than holding free and open elections?

We support the people who serve our interests and not the people.  The events in Tunisia and Sudan serve our interests because those countries are not central to U.S. plans.  It benefits our message to support democracy.  On the other hand, some revolutions don't "help" us so much.  Look at out support of the Contras in Nicaragua.

Mubarak is steady and an Egypt without Mubarak is unpredictable.  Without Mubarak we may lose an ally in the area.  So we offer tepid support to the people and blandly call for the government to not kill people who are seeking a voice in their future.  We should support the cause of self-determination.  The world doesn't move forward with dictators like Mubarak.  They hold us back.  In the end, it's a choice we make - do we support the notion that a people should be able to determine for themselves who leads them, that they should be free to criticize their government or do we support dictators because it makes our lives easier?

Our inconsistent messages and actions are not good for our interests in the long-term.  In the past we could almost justify supporting certain dictatorships as a bulwark against the USSR during the Cold War.  It's not the Cold War anymore and as more and more countries are emerging from the morass of juntas, military rule, paper republics, and dictators we need to be loud about our support for self-determination.  Without it, we breed contempt and our long-term interests are seriously damaged.


The White House may be backing off support (scroll down to 3:12 and 3:19 pm) for Mubarak: Robert Gibbs: at today's press conference "The legitimate grievances that have festered for some time need to be addressed by the Egyptian government..."

This is a good thing.  Has it suddenly become untenable to support a dictator in the face of massive protests? Or is it simply a matter of backing off publicly?

Meanwhile, Chris Matthews is asking the wrong questions. I don't have the video, but Matthews just asked a guest, "what alternative Government in Egypt would be good for us?"  That's a question the Administration and Congress ask, not the Fourth Estate.  Your job is to ask what is the alternative that we are likely to see and what will that mean for us and our allies.

Update 2:

President Obama made statements today after speaking with Mubarak today.  After Mubarak essentially fired his entire government, which hasn't stopped the protests, President Obama urged "concrete steps to advance the rights of the Egyptian people."  The President also hedged his bets a bit and supported "peaceful protesters" calling for calm on the streets and urging the Egyptian government to not use force or violence on the protesters.  He asked for the government to stop blocking the internet and cell phone service and said that the people of Egypt had a "human right" to protest. 

We'll see if the President continues to parse his support for Mubarak and the peaceful protesters.  If President Obama does not see "meaning engagement" from Mubarak will his criticism grow stronger?
Update 3:

Cairo is  smoldering and several more protesters have died.  Mubarak has named his top spy as Vice President and many in the ruling party have left the country by private plane.   Refusing to rely on the police, residents are forming groups to protect their neighborhoods, boarding up homes and businesses.  Sunday is normally the start of the business week in Egypt but schools and the stock market will be shuttered for the day.  If in 1989 we saw the beginnings of the fall of the "Iron Curtain", this week may have shown us the first steps toward the fall of the "sand curtain".  What comes out of the White House over the next few days will be very telling about the choices we're willing to make as a country.

The best on-going coverage is at Al Jazerra.

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It's unclear what if anything is going to come out of both these situations. There is a movement afoot, but for the most part it seems to be driven by immediate needs. There have been massive rises in basic living costs--energy, gasoline, food--in all these countries recently. Food riots have also developed in India and Indonesia in the past few months, so the emphasis on the authoritarianism of governments in North Africa and the Yemen are only part of the picture. If a strong secular left emerges in any of these countries, there will be some advancement. Otherwise disaster capitalism and indebtedness may follow. The State Department is already saying today that the U.S. needs to "help" the Egyptian people more, instead of just throwing aid at the problem. In the past this has meant using third-party organizations like the IMF to leverage huge loans, a now familiar way of disciplining wayward states. The new government there--if there is one at some point--should resist any such offers. Better to go it alone and endure.
It's been an extraordinary day in Egypt. No question that Mubarak is a de facto dictator but in a dicey area of the world, he's caused few problems outside his borders.

So far I think that Obama has been walking the knife edge well. A few times he's referenced his support for the protesters in the terms of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, of which Egypt is a signatory. And I don't fault him for not coming down real gard on Mubarak just yet. Were he to do so, how many other friendly dictators would he be implicitly abandoning?

After watching some news broadcasts, I think that Mubarak will be out soon. I'd guess that the army will forsake him. After that it's uncharted waters. I wouldn't want to be bet a lot of money on either of my guesses.

Thanks for posting this Michael. And thanks for calling out Chris Matthews' silliness. I'm a little surprised that all of OS isn't given over to Egypt for now.
The USA always claims its wars and invasions are for the purpose of "spreading democracy", a lie that ignorant Americans buy every time!! But this is propraganda and a lie considering the Right Wing dictators the USA has repeatedly supported or actually installed, overthrowing democratically elected leaders in the process. The CIA assassinated Salvador Allende of Chile in the 1970s and installed the butcher, Auguste Pinochet. The democratically elected president of Iran was overthrown by the CIA and the Shah installed in the 1950s, etc., etc., etc. After all, Right Wing dictators need to brutally suppress their own people most of the time and therefore make exc ellent customers for the USA's biggest export: weapons, guns, tanks, rocket launchers, helicopters, etc........and then we wonder why the world is so volatile and hates us so much!!

So now, the USA is in the hypocritical position it deserves, supporting a Right Wing dictator in Egypt mainly because he's "given" $2 billion in U.S. aid annually in the form of weaponry and military hardware, which they don't need as many have pointed out, not to mention being paid for by American taxpayers. What most Americans know about the history of their own nation, especially concerning the military, or rather, the muscle for big banks and corporations, would fit in a teaspoon!
Egypt is way more important than Tunisia, and Mr. Obama has to be careful how to proceed. I think he has done the best he can. Interesting post though.
Egypt is way more important than Tunisia, and Mr. Obama has to be careful how to proceed. I think he has done the best he can. Interesting post though.
i found this article really informative!
Great piece. You're absolutely right. Our government now has to pay lip-service to the Egyptian people while collaborating behind the scenes with Mubarak to try and keep him in power any way they can, and they're hoping the promise of reform will be enough. I doubt the Egyptian people are going to fall for it.
You have one of the more intelligent posts on the subject. Have you gone over to my latest on Egypt? I'm interested in what you'd have to say about my analysis, but I'm feeling that our mutual perspectives are very complementary. faved and rated.