Even as chants of “Egypt is free! Egypt is free!” rocked downtown Cairo on Friday, President Barack Obama moved to limit the diplomatic damage stemming from the administration’s response to Egypt’s unexpected lurch toward democracy.
After weeks of criticism that his policies were either too bold or too timid in support of pro-democracy throngs teeming into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Obama firmly sided with the Egyptian protesters on Friday.
“The people of Egypt have spoken, the world has heard them, and Egypt will never be the same,” Obama said in a speech from the White House after it was clear that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak finally had stepped down.
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“Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day,” he said.
But Egyptians rejoicing over the end of Mubarak’s 30-year reign continued to voice frustration that, at least in the early stages of the crisis, the Obama administration appeared more focused on “regional stability” than on the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people.
Ahmed Said, a prominent Egyptian businessman and civic leader who has been part of the protests from the beginning, told Newsmax.TV that many Egyptians believe that former President George W. Bush had been a better champion of democracy than Obama.
“Egyptians, after a certain period of Obama taking over, they thought that Bush was doing a better job with respect to forcing Egypt to have some more democracy and to support democracy,” Said remarked. “Obama, in the eyes of Egyptians, was very popular in the beginning, in the first six months and especially after he came to Cairo.
“But people started to realize that he was exactly like his predecessor, in the sense that he was . . . very soft with Mubarak. He did not put any pressure for democracy and things like that.
“And this was very clear during the past two or three weeks during the Egyptian revolution. [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton’s first comment was that the Egyptian government is stable. And everyone living in Egypt could see loud and clear that it was by no means stable at all.”
Said attributed the administration’s vacillation to “a myth” that the Muslim Brotherhood would take over Egypt if Mubarak fell.
“People in Egypt are religious people,” Said said. “But they are not Islamic people . . . we are not a country that is ready for Islamic rule like Iran.
“That was the panic of the U.S., and the government of the U.S., that they were afraid if Mubarak left power the Muslim Brotherhood would take over,” he said.
Michael Singh, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, confirmed that the Obama administration downplayed the Bush freedom agenda during its first two years.
“You saw cuts in democracy funding in the Middle East specifically,” Singh told Newsmax. “It may have been in the minds of the Obama administration associated with President Bush, and therefore toxic to a degree.
“But I think regardless of that, it will now inevitably have to be a bigger part of the agenda,” he added. “They’ll have to do a strategic rethink of U.S. policy in the Middle East and others regions . . . I think it will play a much bigger role because of what we’ve seen in Egypt.”
A recent Pechter Middle East Poll from the Washington Institute of Near East Policy reveals just how deeply unpopular the president’s policies have been in Egypt. It found that 53 percent of Egyptians disapprove of Obama’s handling of the crisis, compared with just 17 percent who feel he has performed well.
Obama on Friday praised the Egyptian military’s nonviolent response to the uprising, and called on it to be a good steward of Egypt’s transition to representative government and the rule of law.
But Obama’s speech also was unlikely to placate national-security hawks who point that only the allies of the United States — Egypt, Jordan and most recently Bahrain — appear to be in danger from the wave of popular unrest sweeping the Middle East. The anti-American governments of Iran and Syria, they point out, appear relatively invulnerable so far.
Oft-mentioned GOP presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, told Fox News on Friday that what the Obama administration “didn’t need to do is emasculate Mubarak in front of the world.”
Huckabee noted that Obama had soft-pedaled criticism of Iran’s repressive mullahs when pro-democracy activists rallied in Tehran, yet had been quick to turn on Mubarak, a trusted ally of the United States.
“And don’t think that that message didn’t resonate all the way from Riyadh to the eastern shores of Africa,” Huckabee warned.
Nor could Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who reportedly chastised Obama this week for being too quick to jettison longtime ally Mubarak, feel encouraged by the president’s glowing rhetoric on behalf the universal yearning to be free.
“One Egyptian put it simply,” Obama said. “Most people have discovered in the last few days that they are worth something.
“And this cannot be taken away from them anymore — ever. This is the power of human dignity, and it could never be denied,” Obama said.
Already some foreign-policy experts are voicing concerns that China and Russia, which remained neutral during the uprising, insisting that outside forces should not interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs, will try to exploit any daylight between the United States and Saudi Arabia, perhaps enticing the Saudi royal family to reconsider its strategic alignment with the United States.
Another serious diplomatic complication for Obama: The Israeli government is worried the new a post-Mubarak Egypt could nix the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty.
But Said, who noted that he expects presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt by next October, said he believes Mubarak’s fall won’t affect the treaty with Israel that was signed by the late and revered Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.
“I don’t think that it will affect the peace treaty with Israel at all,” he said. “Egyptians are mature, they are aware that this is an international treaty . . . They will be able to realize the cost of breaking international treaties will cost the country a lot, and there is no sense in that.
The Pechter poll appears to support Said’s view. It found that Egyptians continue to support the peace deal with Israel by a 37-to-27 percent margin, with 18 percent undecided and 17 percent declining to answer the question.
“The world is changing,” Said remarked. “The Israelis now are talking to the Palestinians, the Arab countries are now talking to the Israelis.
“So things are changing big time now and I’m really doubtful that this freedom in Egypt would cost anything to the Israelis,” he said.
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