Obama's Egyptian headache: US principles vs US interests

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Obama's Egyptian headache: US principles vs US interests

Obama's Egyptian headache: US principles vs US interests
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The United States has been sharply criticised over its stance on the dramatic events in Egypt.

Washington’s supporters might say it is treading a fine line, backing democracy but anxious not to interfere. Critics might quote the words of Bob Dylan, accusing the administration of “blowing in the wind”.

Yet earlier last week, Barack Obama’s message appeared to many as unambiguous: Mubarak should go.

“What is clear, what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and it must begin now,” said the president.

But if that was seen as a call for the Egyptian leader and his top brass to stand aside, it fell on deaf ears. Vice President Omar Suleiman talks of “dialogue”, of a “timetable” towards a “peaceful transfer of power”. But the 30-year-old emergency law remains in place. As does the government in Cairo. As does Mubarak himself, until September.

When questioned again a few days later, Obama was noticeably more cautious.

“Mr President, a word on the situation in Egypt today?” inquired a reporter as Obama and his aides walked by.

The president continued walking and took time to pick his words carefully:

“Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path and they’re making progress,” was his reply.

Suleiman’s meetings with opposition groups have been criticised as little more than political theatre, buying time while talk of reform remains just that: all talk. The vice president does not apparently believe Egypt is ready for democracy. His proposals have been criticised as either vague or non-binding. Yet publicly at least, Washington is backing the process.

If Obama’s stance towards the long-time Egyptian leader appears to be ambiguous, it reflects the dilemma the US faces: balancing its principles such as democracy and freedom, with the need for stability.

Washington has distanced itself from an envoy’s view that Mubarak should stay, for now. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also voiced concern that the pro-democracy movement could be “hijacked”. And Washington’s ties with Cairo, particularly in keeping Islamic extremism at bay, go back a long way.

The view of Dick Cheney, US vice president under George W. Bush, is that America should remain loyal to the Egyptian leader.

“There is a reason why a lot of diplomacy is conducted in secret, and President Mubarak needs to be treated as he has deserved over the years, because he has been a good friend,” he said.

One Israeli newspaper has expressed the fear said to haunt the corridors of the White House: predicting that Obama will go down in history as “the US president who lost Egypt”, in the same way as Jimmy Carter was described as “the US president who lost Iran”.

However much Obama may identify with the pro-democracy protest, the outcome is unpredictable. The last thing the American president needs is to end up on the wrong side of Egypt’s revolution.