Clinton fields online questions, criticism from young Egyptians

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 10:51 PM

During the tense days of the Egyptian uprising, U.S. officials telephoned that country's aging generals and politicians to urge calm. On Wednesday, America's top diplomat reached out to the youth who toppled the regime, offering to answer their questions on their favorite medium: the Internet.

More than 6,500 people responded, in a cascade of messages from Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had time to answer only a tiny fraction of the questions submitted through the Egyptian Web site They revealed both Egyptians' newfound sense of freedom and their enduring skepticism of U.S. foreign policy, including Washington's relations with their former ruler.

"Does America really support democracy? If yes indeed, why the U.S. was late in its support for the Egyptian revolution?" demanded Mohamed, a young Egyptian, in a video aired for Clinton.

Another questioner, identified as Mahmod, submitted a video of himself in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising against then-President Hosni Mubarak.

"The attitude of the U.S. during the Egyptian revolution was to support the Egyptian regime first. Then, when the revolution turned successful, the U.S. switched sides and supported the Egyptian youth. . . . Why?" asked Mahmod, according to a translation for Clinton.

In her answers to those and other questions, Clinton largely stuck to her positions of recent weeks: that the Obama administration had advocated democratic reforms and had warned publicly and privately against the use of violence during the protests.

"We support democracy in Egypt," she said.

She defended the long U.S. relationship with Mubarak, saying he had cooperated in maintaining peace with Israel, "which I think saved lives."

Clinton's Internet dialogue reflected how important the medium has become for U.S. foreign policy - especially after the revolutions that have swept the Arab world, fueled by messages and videos on social-media sites.

Barely two years ago, Clinton confessed that she didn't "know a Twitter from a tweeter." But these days, the State Department tweets in Farsi and Arabic, and Clinton gives speeches on Internet freedom.

She said the purpose of Wednesday's dialogue was "to hear from thousands of Egyptians about what is on your minds, what you are hoping to have happen now that this incredibly inspiring extraordinary moment in history has occurred."

She said the U.S. government had consistently pushed Mubarak over the years to allow democratic reforms. "We gave grants that the [Mubarak] government did not like to support union organizing, to support organizing on behalf of political opposition to the regime," she said.

In fact, the Obama administration in 2009 essentially allowed the Mubarak government to decide which civil-society groups would receive democracy assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, a move roundly criticized by pro-democracy groups.

While standing up for U.S. policy toward Egypt, Clinton acknowledged that the United States is going to have to pay more attention to the power of grass-roots movements.

"This is a new world we're all in together. . . . All of us are going to have to get used to a different kind of political relationship," she said.

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