President Obama began his presidency by planting his foreign policy flag in the sands of Egypt. After eight years of Bush’s cowboy diplomacy, he sought to reestablish our footing on the international stage with a speech meant to encourage dialogue and renew cooperation. While this speech did acknowledge the mistakes of our past, it was far from another stop in the “Apology Tour” described by Conservatives. (1) Instead it was an embrace of what makes America exceptional, that “we were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words - within our borders, and around the world.” (2)
The shifting sands of Egyptian politics have given plenty of opportunities to test the resolve of the President’s message. For nearly 30 years, Hosni Mubarak enjoyed the support of the United States as a hedge against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and in recognition of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Perhaps blinded by these benefits, we also looked the other way at the country’s democratic shortcomings, including ranking near the bottom of the Worldwide Press Freedom Index in 2006. (3) Continued support of this regime hardly seemed consistent with a “commitment...to governments that reflect the will of the people.” (4)
The 25 January Revolution and the dawn of the Arab Spring gave Obama the opportunity to atone for America’s past sins. The Egyptian people took our President at his word when he said that “all people yearn for ...the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed...they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” (5) Unfortunately, we did not seem to throw our complete support to the protesters until after their success seemed guaranteed. Once again we were caught putting political expediency above taking the moral high ground.
Part of our government’s hesitancy to back replacing Mubarak was the uncertainty over who would replace him. The protesters were made up of a far reaching coalition of differing interests, but only the Muslim Brotherhood had political experience and an existing infrastructure. This left open the possibility of an Islamist government which followed the path of the Iranian Revolution. However, “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.” (6) We had the moral obligation to back the non-violent protestors.
The fall of Mubarak did lead to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi. As the country’s first democratically elected President, he deserved the support he received from the American government. At the same time, based on the promises made to the Egyptian people in his Cairo speech, President Obama had an obligation to make sure that Morsi did not follow a one vote and done strategy that would only give the Egyptian people a single chance to plot their future.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that democracy would not be given the opportunity to thrive under the Brotherhood. Despite the fact that feminists were a visible part of the coalition that brought down Mubarak, women’s rights were diminished under the new government. For example, a Brotherhood family expert was quoted as saying “a woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house.” (7) The government pursued criminal charges against television host Bassem Youssef for “insulting the president,” “insulting Islam” and “reporting false news.” (8) Morsi also gave himself “the powers to issue any decision or law without any alternative authority in the country having the power to oppose or revoke it.” (9)
Having already faced down one dictator, the Egyptian people took to the streets again to defend their fledgling democracy. Faced with increasing violence and escalating protests from both sides, the still independent military set a deadline for the government to share power with their opponents. When Morsi rejected these demands, the military suspended the constitution and removed the president from power.
President Obama has performed vocal gymnastics in not calling these events a coup as federal law prohibits “any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree, or...supported by the military.” (10) However, allowing the $1.5 billion in aid that we provide to Egypt to be blocked carries considerable risk. (11) Most importantly, it would remove the biggest carrot that we have in our diplomatic arsenal and leave a vacuum that other countries in the region would gladly fill. We would also not be fulfilling our obligations under the Camp David Accords and would risk being the party that derailed that historic agreement.
The law regarding coups is an important protection against repeating our country’s Cold War debacles where “the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government.” (12) However, in this case the elected government was working against the interests of Democracy. The President has taken some action and selectively cut some aid to help ensure that the Egyptian military fulfills its commitment to return the country to the road towards democracy. This use of a scalpel is much more effective than the chainsaw some are advising that he use.
(2) (4) (5) (6) (12) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/04/obama-egypt-speech-video_n_211216.html
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