IllumiNation: Examining US Response to Egyptian Protest

The commanding political story for the last two weeks has been the ongoing Egyptian protest, focused on the ousting of current President Hosni Mubarek and forcing free elections in the African nation.

Many eyes have been on the mixed-messages conveyed by the United States’ government, which hesitated early to recognize the merits of the protesters in Egypt and have since moved to a stance in support of representative government and the transition away from Mubarek.

At the same time, the Obama Administration must work to balance the special relationship of a close ally with the pressing need to lead the charge for basic rights of free media and a more representative government.

At the latest juncture, the U.S. supports a transition in which Mubarek himself helps to dismantle his own power structure. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support this weekend for Vice President Omar Suleiman, the man designated by Mubarek to carry out the transition.

President Obama has repeatedly stated his desire to see an orderly, peaceful transition begin immediately. Along with his White House team, Obama has been working to negotiate with Egyptian leaders and consult with other world powers, especially those in the region.

Debate persists regarding the appropriate time for Mubarek’s departure. Some – Obama included – suggest an immediate transition. Others, including Frank Wisner, who traveled to Egypt last week on behalf of the administration, encouraged an extension of Mubarek’s rule and expressed support for the controversial president’s ongoing role in the transition and reform.

My take on this – the United States was late to the table and perceived as hesitant to disrupting the government of a leader who, while oppressive, has an excellent track record of supporting U.S. policy and involvement in the region.

In fact, some began to question – rightly so – whether the Obama Administration would ever call for the outright removal of Mubarek, especially if the president’s staff did not support the position. One of the concerns among U.S. officials was that early expressed support of the protesters could lead to diplomatic problems if Mubarek retained power in the long-term.

Only after it became apparent that Mubarek would not sustain his government, or rebound from the protests, did the United States make a clear call for his immediate transition out of power.

This is not uncommon for the United States – over the past several decades, American administrations have become known for supporting oppressive rulers when their actions favored the United States and later turning on them in less appreciable times.

Such was the case with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan. When they provided commodities or held parallel views of U.S. antagonists in the region, friendships were formed. Those bonds dissolved when they no longer bore fruit. Then – only then – did the U.S. advocate for freedom.

The actions this week support that notion – the U.S. supports democracy around the world – except in cases where a lack of democracy benefits the United States.