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The United States has been too slow on Egypt

By Kevin Boreham - posted Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The response of the Obama Administration to the uprising in Egypt has been over-cautious and blindly obsessed with media messaging.  It reflects the fears of US allies instead of positive policy. 

It is deeply frustrating to an admirer of President Obama to see how he has become blinded by the obstacles that arise whenever an autocratic regime is threatened. 

Because the Mubarak régime has been in power for so long it has built up ties with powerful interests invested in its survival. 


In this case, the Administration has been pressured by Israel, which fears an Egyptian government which is not totally pliant to the US, and other Arab autocracies which fear the democratic tsunami which has already toppled the Tunisian régime and is rolling over Egypt will drown them also. 

The same fears of the consequence of abandoning a traditional ally strangled US policy over Iran in 1978-79 with the outcome of an Islamic régime owing the US nothing but contempt. 

The Obama Administration should think more clearly than its fearful allies about the alternative scenarios for Egypt’s future and their implications for the US and for them: how well is Israel protected by a not very competent 82 year old autocrat who is openly hated by his own people? 

Would not a successor Government, grateful for US support and willing to listen to the US administration, offer a better guarantee for Israel’s future?

Anyone who has worked through an international crisis will recognise the Administration’s focus on getting the message rather than the policy right. 

Massive amounts of energy and brainpower in these circumstances are consumed with constructing bullet points. 


White House Pres Secretary Robert Gibbs struggled today through a press conference trying to explain what Secretary of State Hilary Clinton meant by US support for ‘an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people’ in her Sunday morning talk show appearances. 

Gibbs was unable to explain what the transition was from and what its destination would look like, specifically if the transition would be from the old President Mubarak to President Mubarak with a miraculous new commitment to democracy and human rights.

Human rights advocates may have been initially pleased by the rights discourse relied on by the President and Secretary Clinton, but the Administration cannot explain how it expects rights to be protected by a régime which has flouted them for thirty years. 

Egypt is one of the most stubborn hardliners on the UN Human Rights Council.  It will not change while Mubarak remains in power.

As anyone who has toiled in the human rights industry knows, talking about rights is easy: pressuring autocratic regimes to implement them is hard political work which requires courage in facing the possible outcomes of the pressure succeeding.  

Sooner rather than later (perhaps very soon) the US will have to deal with a post Mubarak Egypt : it is running out of time to influence what that Egypt will look like, and whether the Government and people of Egypt will regard the US as a supportive friend or an enemy.

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About the Author

Kevin Boreham teaches law at the ANU College of Law.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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