Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Back in bed with an Egyptian dictator?

US President Barack Obama (R) meets with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

US President Barack Obama (R) meets with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

One of the great myths of the Arab Spring is that of “Barack the Liberator” – the courageous American president who stood with the Egyptian people when they rose up against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. When tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square last year to demand an end to dictatorship, Obama’s handpicked envoy, Frank Wisner, declared that Hosni Mubarak “must stay in office” to implement reforms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who had earlier declared the Mubaraks “to be friends of my family” – announced “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.” Egyptians remembered that, on taking office, Obama had cut pro-democracy funding for Egypt in half — but their hopes that Obama might finally stand with them soon gave way to disappointment and 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.” Obama’s actions alienated the Egyptian people and harmed our ability to influence the post-Mubarak transition. It became clear to Egyptians that America valued the “stability” of dictatorship more than its first principles.

Now the same story is playing out all over again, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president is claiming near-dictatorial powers, announcing that his own decrees are exempt from judicial review. Both pro-Mubarak forces and the secular anti-Mubarak protesters that pushed the former Egyptian leader out have united in opposition to President Morsi’s power grab.

The United States? Not so much.

At a White House press conference yesterday, Jay Carney refused to condemn Morsi’s actions, instead expressing “concern.” Only when reporters pressed him on the weak American response did this “concern” become “significant and serious.” In other words, we don’t really care.

It was not lost on the Egyptian people that both Morsi’s power grab and the impotent American reaction came immediately after Morsi had helped the US broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The message to the Egyptian people is the same as it was when Obama stood with Mubarak — the US values “stability” over its first principles.

It does not have to be this way. As Dany notes here, the US has significant leverage it can use to affect the behavior of the Egyptian regime both at home and abroad in the form of $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars.

The question is: Will the Obama administration use that leverage to demand both a respect for democracy and a responsible foreign policy? Will Obama stand with the Egyptian people and condition US aid on the restoration of the rule of law and the enactment of economic and political reforms? Or will the US get in bed with yet another Egyptian dictator — standing by as Morsi attempts to become an Islamist Hugo Chavez — using the electoral process to create a de facto dictatorship?

So far, it appears the Obama administration is content sidling up to what Dany correctly calls Egypt’s “new pharaoh.” That could have long-term repercussions for America’s moral and strategic interests — especially if Egyptians succeed in stopping Morsi’s power grab and remember that we refused to condemn it.

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