Remember the historic Obama foreign policy triumph in Egypt? It was in all the papers, back when the President was taking his victory lap.
There were several weeks of confusion, dithering, and bet-hedging at first, as the Administration struggled to ensure it would not be seen on the losing side of the struggle. In the early days of the Egyptian uprising, no less than Vice President Joe Biden strongly declared that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator, and should not step aside. As The Hill reported on January 28,2011:
When asked if Mubarak was a dictator, Biden responded, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
“I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that — to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there,” Biden said after stressing that he shouldn’t resign.
“Violence isn’t appropriate and people have a right to protest,” he said. “And so — and we think that — I hope Mubarak, President Mubarak, will — is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised.”
(Emphasis mine, because when Joe Biden is actually right about something, it deserves to be emphasized.) Eventually the Administration decided Mubarak had to go, at all costs, and it wasn’t terribly worried about who replaced him. There was, understandably, a great deal of sympathy for the Egyptian protesters, who displayed great determination in the face of increasingly ugly persecution. Americans in great numbers naturally rooted for a massive “democracy protest” against a corrupt authoritarian who had driven his country into the ground while enriching his cronies.
There were a good many sincere democracy activists behind the Egyptian uprising, but unfortunately there were sinister forces as well. Once the Administration chose a side in the conflict, the story became excessively simplified and romanticized. It’s hard to see a situation clearly when you’ve got stars in your eyes.
Personally, I thought it was time for Mubarak to go, and eventually it became inevitable that he would go, because the amount of killing necessary to keep him in power had reached Bashar Assad levels (if I might fast-forward through history a few months to draw a comparison.) A more controlled departure, with less of a power vacuum left behind, would have been better than a hasty bum’s rush.
Most of all, it was important not to write a fairy-tale happy ending for a tale of oppression that was far from over. The last thing we needed was an official narrative that democracy had “won” in Egypt, and America could therefore take its eyes off Cairo.
Unfortunately, a fairy tale is exactly what we got. Here are some excerpts from President Obama’s remarks after Mubarak relinquished power in early February:
By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change. But this is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s a beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity that has defined these last few weeks. For Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.
The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free. Above all, this transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table. For the spirit of peaceful protest and perseverance that the Egyptian people have shown can serve as a powerful wind at the back of this change.
[…] We saw people of faith praying together and chanting – “Muslims, Christians, We are one.” And though we know that the strains between faiths still divide too many in this world and no single event will close that chasm immediately, these scenes remind us that we need not be defined by our differences. We can be defined by the common humanity that we share.
And above all, we saw a new generation emerge — a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply: Most people have discovered in the last few days… that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore, ever.
So we had a complex and potentially disastrous transition of power, in a foreign land whose complex and often sinister politics are not well-understood by Americans, shoehorned into the Obama campaign mantra (“President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change!) and coupled with an almost childishly naïve refusal to see Egyptians as anything other than props for Western media puppet shows celebrating the big Obama foreign policy triumph.
Just nine months later, the Coptic Christians have been brutally persecuted, and the Egyptian military is hanging onto power through a bloody crackdown that has killed 35 people and wounded 1700 others. CNN brings us the latest news from Tahrir Square, and it sounds awfully familiar:
Doctors at Cairo’s Tahrir Square said injuries include gunshot wounds, excessive tear gas inhalations and beatings to the head.
“I have received many people suffering of convulsions,” said Tarek Salama, a medic in a makeshift hospital in Tahrir Square. “Lots of gunshot wounds from rubber and bird shots. And I have seen two cases who have been hit with actual live bullets.”
Tahrir Square — once a center of euphoria following the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February — continues to be a major flashpoint for the unrest.
“People here feel that they have been cheated and that they have moved from an autocracy to a military dictatorship,” protester Mosa’ab Elshamy said. “So they are back to the square — back to square one — to ask for their rights once again.”
Some Egyptian observers believe a second uprising will literally tear the country apart. CNN quotes human rights activist Hisham Qasim: “The poverty belt is now the ticking time bomb in Egypt. It threatens that what we went through (earlier this year) could be repeated… I don’t think we’ll survive a second uprising in the span of 10 years.”
What very few Western media outlets are mentioning, when they bother to cover the new Egyptian riots at all, is that persecution of the Copts is a major factor in the violence. Catholic Online reports on the fate of a march to Tahrir Square this weekend, held to commemorate the deaths of Coptic Christians killed in Cairo last month:
The march was organized by the Free Copts Movements and the Blood of Martyrs movement, two of many new groups formed after clashes that took place on October 9 in the Cairo neighborhood of Maspero, which left 26 dead and 300 injured.
“We were marching peacefully with candles to commemorate the 26 martyrs of Maspero on the 40-day anniversary of the Maspero attacks, when several youth clashed,” Sherif Doss, the head of the Egyptian Coptic Association said.
“Some residents started throwing rocks and glass bottles from the rooftops of buildings at the crowds, which left many injured,” Doss added.
“Hundreds of police conscripts assigned by the ministry of interior to protect the march started firing tear gas canisters to stop the clashes between the unidentified men,” Sameh Mina a Coptic protester, told television reporters.
“The Copts defended themselves and threw rocks back at the attackers until the police intervened,” Mina added.
So the military junta is turning out to be not much of an improvement over the old regime. One protester sneered, “Mubarak is still alive and well, and the people are dying.” This was presumably a reference to the spirit of Mubarak, since the old dictator is actually in very poor health these days, and still faces corruption and oppression charges in Egyptian courts. The junta is demonstrably inferior to Mubarak in at least one notable area, protection of the Coptic Christian minority, and is on track to conclusively demonstrate another inferiority very soon, in its relationship with Israel. That’s not much of a “happy ending,” and it doesn’t look like much of a “foreign policy triumph” any more.