The extraordinary scenes in Cairo this past weekend brought back memories of similar scenes on the streets of Warsaw, Prague and Berlin two decades ago. Yet there is one crucial difference between then and now. Unlike the crowds that brought down Marxist regimes in Central Europe, the crowds that brought down the Mubarak regime in Egypt do not believe America stood with them in their struggle for freedom — and many believe we stood against them.
When the protests first erupted, ordinary Egyptians appeared to hope — almost to expect — that once they rose up to demand their freedom, America could not help but stand with them. Instead, they heard President Obama’s handpicked envoy, Frank WinserWisner,√ declare that Hosni Mubarak “must stay in office” to oversee the changes he had ordered. They heard Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declare the United States backed “the transition process announced by the Egyptian government” (which then consisted of Mubarak staying in power until September). And they waited in vain for Obama himself to speak out clearly and align America with the democratic revolution they had set in motion. Soon their hopes gave way to disappointment and eventually anger. Demonstrators began carrying signs that declared “Shame on you Obama!” and showed Mubarak depicted as Obama in his iconic “hope” image – with a caption that read “No You Can’t.”
Not only did Obama not speak up for the protesters, in 2009 — at the very same time he was delivering his Cairo address calling for greater democracy in the Middle East — his administration cut pro-democracy funding for Egypt in half. Worse, in an effort to appease Mubarak, Obama agreed that the remaining money would be channeled only to groups approved by the government — effectively giving Mubarak a veto over which organizations received American support. This means that Obama cut off U.S. support for the very independent pro-democracy groups that sparked the Egyptian protests, toppled the Mubarak regime, and may end up leading a new Egyptian government.
On Friday, following Mubarak’s resignation, Obama finally gave an eloquent speech celebrating the “moral force” of the demonstrators who had “bent the arc of history toward justice.” Those beautiful words fell on deaf ears in Cairo. Indeed, the protesters had anticipated Obama’s belated praise. As one opposition leader put it before Mubarak’s fall, the Americans “are just waiting to see which side wins and then they will claim to have backed them all along.”
The revisionism has already begun. A front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times reported that “Mr. Obama was furious” when he heard the statements by Wisner and Clinton, and immediately deployed Sen. John Kerry to counter them on a Sunday talk show (though the story later reveals that Obama was not “furious” about the substance of his advisors’ advisers’ comments, only that “saying so openly would reveal that the United States was not in total sync with the protesters and was indeed putting its strategic interests first.”)
Fortunately, Obama now has a chance to make it up to the Egyptian people. While Mubarak has fallen, Egypt’s democratic revolution has only begun. The Egyptian military has taken full control of the country. It has promised to govern only for six months and to “guarantee the peaceful transition of power within the framework of a free democratic system that allows an elected civilian power to rule the country.” But the military has a vested interest in preserving as much of the status quo as possible. And it will test Obama in the period ahead to see how much autocracy he is willing to tolerate in the name of stability.
Based on Obama’s handling of the crisis thus far, Egypt’s military leaders can be forgiven for assuming that the answer is: quite a lot. It is therefore imperative that the president make clear that America will hold the Egyptian military to its promises of democratic change. He should press for the lifting of Egypt’s hated emergency law, the release of political prisoners, and the immediate inclusion of pro-democracy leaders in an interim government and committees that will draft a new Cconstitution. Obama should also immediately restore the U.S. support he cut off for independent civil society groups — so they can organize themselves to participate in democratic elections and contribute to a free Egypt.
President Obama did not lose Egypt, but he did lose the Egyptian people — and that could have far reaching implications for U.S. interests. If he can use America’s influence in the coming months to ensure that the democratic aspirations of Egyptians are fulfilled, perhaps it’s not too late to win them back.