Supporting Democratic Aspirations of All People

The Obama administration's slow and cautious response to Egypt's protest was frustrating. And correct.

The unfolding revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have captured the world’s attention and imagination. And raised anew some old questions about what, if anything, the West and the United States in particular should do.

In his January 25 State of the Union address, President Obama pointed to the “desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” He declared, “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.”

But he pointedly did not mention Egypt, whose own revolution had erupted in full force that very day, as the #jan25 hashtags going viral on Twitter reminded us.   Was the United States going to stand with the people of Egypt, supporting their democratic aspirations, too?

Very tepidly, at best.    Aside from the president’s not mentioning the situation at all in his speech that evening, his spokesmen sent mixed messages on January 25th.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked by VOA’s Dave Gollust about the situation, noted that her people were “monitoring” the situation “very closely.”  She declared, ” We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence. But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs cautiously noted that the regime had a chance to “be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people” and to “pursue political, economic and social reforms.”

On January 27  — a mere two days into the crisis, but which may as well have been two months to those following it second by second on Twitter — Vice President Joe Biden was asked point blank by PBS’s Jim Lehrer, “Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?”  He responded, “No, I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that — to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.”  Later in the interview, Biden defended the Egyptian strongman, proclaiming that, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.”  In the sound byte of the evening, he added, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Now, we don’t yet know what, if anything, the administration was doing behind the scenes.  A Telegraph report yesterday claimed that the United States government has been orchestrating all this behind the scenes since the closing days of the Bush administration.  But the tepid public response was frustrating even sober analysts. Washington Post columnist and editor Jackson Diehl saw it as a continuation of two years of bad policy toward Egypt and urged the administration to use the considerable influence that its billions of dollars in aid confers and “take the right side.”

Finally, last night, President Obama himself weighed in, roughly an hour after Mubarak had addressed his country (and the rest of the world) on television.   Obama renewed calls “to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and urged his counterpart to turn a “moment of volatility” into a “moment of promise.”

But he went much further, declaring, “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal.  That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny.  These are human rights.  And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.”

He added, “I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.”

It became clear that these were not mere platitudes. Obama observed, “The United States has a close partnership with Egypt and we’ve cooperated on many issues, including working together to advance a more peaceful region. But we’ve also been clear that there must be reform — political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.” He added, “When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.”

AP’s Bradley Klapper saw this as treading a middle ground, trying to simultaneously win “the hearts and minds of Egyptians furious with their autocratic ruler while assuring a vital ally that the United States has his back.”  But it was much more definitive than that.  It was a stern, public rebuke of an important ally and a demand for concrete action.  And, given the nature of diplomacy, one presumes that the private phone conversation was much more candid, leaving Mubarak with no illusions that he could continue on his current path and continue to receive American backing.

Klapper correctly notes, though, that “The reality is that the United States can do little to control or direct the anger in the Arab world unleashed two weeks ago when Tunisia chased its long-time ruler from power. Yet the U.S. can do severe harm to its own interests by coming out too forcefully for or against the uprising.”  He adds, “Washington’s perceived ability to pick and choose governments is limited to a very few places. It does not wield that power in the Middle East, where Islamic parties completely opposed to the United States are often the most likely democratic alternatives.”

But it goes beyond that.

For one thing, public American backing for protest movements in that part of the world can do more harm than good.

For another, while we all have visions of “democracy” springing forth when dictators fall, there’s no guarantee that Egyptians will be more free under a regime that follows Mubarak. While it could be more Western, if for example Nobel laureate Mohammad ElBaradei forms a government, it could just as easily be a radical Islamist regime under the Muslim Brotherhood.  We only need to reflect back on the failed promise of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution to remind ourselves of this.

In a breakfast roundtable on January 26, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter presciently explained why the administration was so cautious about jumping in with both feet.  Asked by FT’s Daniel Dombey whether the administration’s policy was a “retroactive freedom doctrine” in which the United States backs revolutions only after they’re successful, she noted that the National Security Strategy called for a balancing in which there was simultaneously “respect for universal values” but “not imposing our values in countries around the world.”

She pointed to the newly minted Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which formalized a longstanding policy that the United States must  “be engaging in relations with states and societies at the same time. We do not support people without engaging with their governments; it’s a world of states and we have all sorts of interests that have to be advanced working with states.”  At the same time, however, “We don’t deal with governments regardless of the state of their people, of how they treat their people.”

In the case of Tunisia, Slaughter emphasized that “we’re supporting the process,” not a particular outcome.  Clearly, that was and is our policy in Egypt as well.

Indeed, while Biden’s defense of Mubarak earlier in the week was a bit too forceful for my tastes, he was absolutely right when he said, later in the same interview, in outlining what the American government’s stance should be, not just in Egypt but wherever these movements spring up:   “I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable accommodation — accommodation and discussion, to try to resolve peacefully and amicable the concerns and claims made by those who’ve taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to, because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.”   He added the caveat, “that’s different than some protests that occur in that region of the world that are really designed to overthrow a government for the purpose of establishing an autocracy that is more regressive than anything that exists.”

This won’t satisfy those who want instant and enthusiastic support for democracy movements wherever they may pop up.  But it’s the prudent and correct policy.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Whatever happens it won’t be up to us, and however this plays out I doubt it would have made any difference if our president was named Bush or Obama. All we can really do right now is try to deflect rage away from the US and our citizens, then play our very few cards — foreign aid and diplomacy — to soften the aftermath.

    This isn’t really about us, not our drama, although the consequences down the road can be really deeply unfortunate for us and our allies. Netanyahu is going to wish he’d made a deal with the Palestinian Authority. If Egypt goes Islamist Israel’s strategic situation will dramatically worsen.

  2. ponce says:

    “This won’t satisfy those who want instant and enthusiastic support for democracy movements wherever they may pop up. ”

    Especially one that wants to turn Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state that would makes Iran seem like Norway.

  3. David says:

    This has everything to do with the U.S.: who do you imagine has been arming and funding Mubarak’s repressive regime all these decades? (hint: those teargas cannisters fired at unarmed Egyptian civilians say “made in U.S.A.”).
    If the U.S. stopped funding governments which repress their own peoples, the world might have a chance of listening to U.S. politicians talk about “democracy” without bursting into giggles and tears. Maybe.

  4. David says:

    And while he’s at it, if Obama wants to be taken seriously with those fine words, he would do well to actually guarantee freedom of assembly and protest in the U.S., where peace and solidarity activists are being rounded up by the FBI:

  5. Tlaloc says:

    We should just stay the hell out of it. If the Egyptians want to change their government that’s their business (so long as they don’t let it spill out into neighboring nations, in which case the UN has a role to play). We’ve got enough problems of our own without the whole world cop routine.

  6. David says:

    “staying out” would of course mean cutting off U.S, military aid (=billions in corporate welfare), at least until there is a legitimate democratic government who can decide if they want U.S. strings attached, or not (one rather suspects the latter).

  7. James Joyner says:

    David: Our military aid to Egypt is almost entirely as a result of the Camp David Accords, and thus obligated by treaty. And the Mubarak government is holding up its end of the bargain.