In the Obama administration’s first cabinet-level visit to the Middle East since the onset of the region’s political unrest in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Egypt and Tunisia this week on a “democracy cheerleading tour” to pledge support for the countries’ transitional governments and to rally up populist support for democratic policies.
“To see where this revolution happened and all that it has meant to the world is extraordinary for me,” Clinton remarked during a visit to Tahrir Square. “It’s just a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and the universal desire for human rights and democracy. It’s just thrilling to see where this happened.”
“Egypt and the United States have many strategic interests in common and a democratic Egypt will continue to have strategic interests with the United States.”
As if to put our money where her mouth was, Clinton also pledged a towering amount of aid to the rebuilding of Egypt: $90 million in emergency economic aid and $60 million in an enterprise fund to help the country create jobs. The Egyptian army, famous for its torture methods and human rights abuses, already receives about $1.3 billion a year from the U.S.
“To the people of Egypt, let me say: This moment of history belongs to you,” Clinton said in a joint press conference with Egypt’s new foreign minister, Nabil el-Araby. “This is your achievement and you broke barriers and overcame obstacles to pursue the dream of democracy.”
“The pyramids are magnificent but nowhere near as magnificent as what you have already done… No one is permitted to hijack this revolution, no one is permitted to turn the clock back on this revolution, no one is permitted to claim it for only one group of Egyptians and exclude other Egyptians.”
It wasn’t all fun and games this time around. Egypt, once one of our busom buddies in the Middle East, now has an entirely different view on United States foreign policy. To them, the US took too long to support the protests, effectively making them Mubarak supporters in democracy’s clothing. If we want the Pharonic love, we better be ready to say sorry and play nice.
“There was an invitation for members of the coalition to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,” the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition issued in a statement on their Facebook page, “but based on her negative position from the beginning of the revolution and the position of the US administration in the Middle East, we reject this invitation.”
In a separate statement released to an Egyptian newspaper, the coalition, made up of six youth activist groups, also said, “the US administration took Egypt’s revolution lightly and supported the old regime while Egyptian blood was being spilled.” They went on to elaborate that Clinton was not welcome in Egypt “because the U.S. administration long supported Mubarak’s corrupt, dictatorial regime financially, politically, and morally.” They expressed no interest in meeting with her until the United States makes a formal apology to the Egyptian people for their support of Mubarak’s regime. “The Egyptian people are the masters of their own land and destiny and will only accept equal relations of friendship and respect between the people of Egypt and the people of America.”
A spokesman for Clinton had no immediate response.
According to ABC News, “Clinton was perceived as slow to recognize the strength of the protest movement.” When first asked about the protests on January 25, she told reporters, “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.”
“I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” she said in a 2009 interview with Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya. “So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
You can see from these statements where Egyptians feel they’re in the right to not only question Clinton’s motivations in her turnaround support for the revolution, but to also point out her apparent weathervane approach to the sweep of political protests, one that changes directions with whatever tide brings in the most stable position for mass approval.
About two dozen pro-democracy activists did meet with Clinton privately, and they met her florid praise with some real-world criticism. “We offered a serious critique of the U.S. foreign policy towards Egypt and the Middle East,” activist Ahmed Naguib told Reuters. “We need to see a foreign policy that is receptive and in line with the reform movements sweeping across the region.”
The concerns are not trying to cut the ties with the United States, but are rather reflective of a broader regional mistrust towards American diplomacy. Past missteps in history have caused many Arabs to question whether a United States stamp of approval has more to do to with economic interests and Western stability in the Middle East than it does with tumbling tyrants guilty of human rights abuses to pave the way for reform and the opportunity for Egypt and the Arab world to enter the playing field of First World powers.
Mid-East confidence in the United States peaked at the beginning of President Obama’s term in 2009, but now that assurance has waned, and if the U.S. wants to regain its ground in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, it’s going to have to start by courting the protesters that harkened democracy when the Obama administration lagged in straddling the fine line between status quo diplomacy and grassroots democracy.
Photo courtesy of Marc Nozell via Flickr