Obama Administration Cautiously Shifts Its Stance on Egypt’s Upheaval

By Patrick Goodenough | January 27, 2011 | 4:55 AM EST

Anti-government activists in Egypt clashed with police for a second day Wednesday in defiance of an official ban on protests, but beefed up police forces on the streets quickly moved in, using tear gas and beatings to disperse demonstrators. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

(CNSNews.com) – Signaling a slight shift in its public approach to the unrest in Egypt, the Obama administration has begun to gently prod President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic government, a longstanding U.S. ally, towards reform.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged the government Wednesday to “implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” although without specifically calling for free elections.

“We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications including on social media sites,” she added, speaking during a joint appearance at the State Department with her Jordanian counterpart, Nasser Judeh.

The remarks contrasted with her more cautious statement on Tuesday, when she said that “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.”

That earlier comment had prompted some criticism in Egypt, where police used force on occasion to disrupt widespread anti-Mubarak protests Tuesday. At least two protestors and one security force member were killed in clashes.

The editor of Egypt’s Bikya Masr news site said Clinton’s comment on Tuesday showed that the U.S. stood “[w]ith the government, not those demanding an end to decades of oppression and justice.”

“This is the Egyptian people’s chance to finally show the world that what we are calling for is real, and for Washington and Clinton to squirm away from real support is unjust and frustrating,” the site quoted a protestor as saying.

Egyptian authorities on Wednesday banned further demonstrations and police prevented any large-scale gatherings in Cairo. Amid reports of intermittent scuffles and human rights groups’ claims of hundreds of arrests, more protests were being planned for after Friday’s regular midday prayers.

A riot van drives through a burning barricade as Egyptian riot police clash with anti-government activists in downtown Cairo on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Topping the mostly youthful protestors’ demands is an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule. He has served five terms but only once, in a 2005 election described by outside observers as flawed, were other candidates allowed. A presidential election is due in November and opposition groups want neither the 82 year-old Mubarak nor his son, Gamal, to run.

President Obama in his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening made no direct reference to the situation in Egypt, although he did cite the recent uprising that ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – Obama called him “a dictator” – and said that the U.S. “supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Later on Tuesday night, the White House issued a statement supporting Egyptians’ “rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” urging “all parties to refrain from using violence” and saying the U.S. expected the authorities to respond to protests peacefully.

“The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper,” it added. “The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals.”

Similar sentiments were included in a statement issued by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey on Wednesday.

“The U.S. wants to see reform occur in Egypt and elsewhere, to create greater political, social and economic opportunity, consistent with people’s aspirations,” she said. “The United States is a partner of Egypt and the Egyptian people in this process, which we believe should unfold in a peaceful atmosphere.”

Scobey met with a government minister Wednesday and “expressed our concern about the situation and the need for the Egyptian Government to demonstrate restraint,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

Citing Obama’s SOTU comment, American Enterprise Institute vice president for foreign and defense policy studies Danielle Pletka in a blog posting Wednesday pondered the administration’s stance.

“Do we support the aspirations of the people, as the president said? Or do we support the aspirations of various governments to remain in power, reforming occasionally and within limits in order to allow ‘the people’ to blow off steam without fear of death? The answer seems clearly to be the latter.”

The protests in Egypt – like others in recent weeks in Jordan, Algeria and elsewhere – have drawn inspiration from the revolt in Tunisia that ended Ben Ali’s 23-year rule.

The administration also responded cautiously at first to the deadly clashes in Tunisia, with Clinton telling Al-Arabiya television on January 11 that the U.S. was “not taking sides” between protesting Tunisians and the government but hoped for a peaceful resolution.

After Ben Ali left the country three days later, Clinton said the U.S. was “committed to helping the people and government bring peace and stability to their country and we hope that they will work together to build a stronger, more democratic society that respects the rights of all people.”

The U.S. is now pressing for free and fair elections in Tunisia, where visiting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman at a press conference Wednesday hailed “an exciting and unprecedented moment in Tunisia’s history.”

Charlie Szrom, senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, earlier this week called on the administration to offer rhetorical support for the demonstrators; demand the unblocking of social networking Web sites; increase democracy aid and direct it to Egyptian non-governmental organizations; and reduce economic aid to signal its “displeasure with the regime’s treatment of the Egyptian people.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow