Sunday, January 30, 2011

Obama and Mubarak and democracy--an accounting

By Glenn Kessler
The Washington Post

"He's on several occasions directly confronted President Mubarak on it. And pushed him on the need for political reform"
--White House senior adviser David Axelrod, January 28, 2011

With mass protests calling for the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's three decades of autocratic rule, the White House insists that President Obama has been a forceful prod for reform in Egypt. Without access to transcripts, it is impossible to know exactly what Obama and Mubarak have said to one another behind closed doors or in private phone conversations. But one indication of whether pressing democracy was important to the administration is the public description of their conversations, either in press statements or by the president himself. The White House spokesman has on occasion made sharp statements about rights in Egypt, but words spoken by the president or the secretary of state give the most important signals.


Egypt has long been an important partner of the United States, critical to the efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. But relations cooled during the Bush administration, as U.S. officials publicly pressed Mubarak to allow for multi-party presidential elections and to release prominent dissidents. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even canceled a planned visit to Egypt and suspended $200 million in aid to signal her displeasure at the continued jailing of Ayman Nour, who hoped to challenge Mubarak in the presidential contest. When Rice finally visited Egypt, she emphasized: "We look to the Egyptians and the Egyptian people to also take a major role in leading reform in this region."

But the Bush administration's ardor for greater democracy in the Middle East cooled after the unexpected victory of the militant Islamist group Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Rice muted her public protests after Nour was jailed yet again and Mubarak systematically dismantled a nascent democracy movement by pushing through constitutional amendments that limited opposition parties, suspended judicial supervision of elections and enshrined draconian police powers. Near the end of Bush's term, the Egyptians felt so confident of their position that Rice was told she couldn't visit Egypt until she waived congressional restrictions on $100 million in military aid, which she did.

When Obama took office, the administration's priority was reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. So, in public statements, references to democracy and reform were further muted. On her first visit to Egypt, shortly after she became the chief U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed the importance of a State Department report on the human rights situation in Egypt: "We issue these reports on every country," she told Egyptian television on March 2, 2009. "We consider Egypt to be a friend."

Asked whether the concerns raised in the report might prevent a visit by the Egyptian autocrat to the United States, Clinton replied. "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States." Cables released by Wikileaks indicate that the State Department advised Clinton not even to raise the case of Nour, who had been recently released from jail.

White House Statements

The pattern continued through much of the Obama administration. Here is a collection of the official White House statements on meetings and phone calls between the two presidents:

June 4, 2009: President Obama's first meeting with Mubarak in Cairo. No mention of reform in Egypt. Obama told reporters: "As the President has indicated, we discussed the situation with Israel and the Palestinians. We discussed how we can move forward in a constructive way that brings about peace and prosperity for all people in the region. And I emphasized to him that America is committed to working in partnership with the countries in the region so that all people can meet their aspirations."

[NOTE: On that same day, Obama gave a speech in Cairo. Not mentioning Egypt specifically, he said: "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere."]

August 3, 2009: White House announcement of upcoming meeting between Obama and Mubarak. No mention of reform in Egypt. "The two leaders will discuss the full range of issues of common concern - including Middle East peace, combating extremism and other regional threats, and promoting reform across the Arab world - as well as how to strengthen the bilateral relationship."

August 18, 2009: Meeting of the two leaders with the media. No mention of reform in Egypt by Obama. Obama gives a lengthy description of the topics they discussed, including Middle East peace, economic cooperation, even polio eradication. He does not mention reform or democracy. Mubarak, however, brings up reform: "We discussed the issue of reform inside Egypt. And I told to President Obama very frankly and very friendly that I have entered into the elections based on a platform that included reforms, and therefore we have started to implement some of it and we still have two more years to implement it."

September 1, 2010: White House statement on meeting with President Mubarak at the White House. Reform in Egypt is mentioned. Much of the statement dealt the Middle East peace but at the end it noted: "President Obama reaffirmed the importance of a vibrant civil society, open political competition, and credible and transparent elections in Egypt. The President welcomes commitments Egypt has made as part of the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review." The headline on the official photograph of the meeting was titled: "Working Towards Middle East Peace."

January 18, 2011: White House statement on a phone call between Obama and Mubarak. No mention of need for reforms in Egypt, though the two men discussed the overthrow of the government in Tunisia: "The President raised the latest developments in Tunisia, and shared with President Mubarak that the United States is calling for calm and an end to violence, and for the interim government of Tunisia to uphold universal human rights and hold free and fair elections in order to meet the aspirations of the Tunisian people."

The first direct call for reform in Egypt from the president's lips came on January 28, 2011, after Mubarak announced he was forcing his government to resign in the wake of mass demonstrations. Obama said: "When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."

The Bottom Line

Not matter what was said in private, or how forcefully, the public message sent by the Obama administration over the past two years was that democracy and human rights in Egypt was not a top priority. When given the opportunity to use the biggest megaphone in the world--the voice of the president of the United States--the words were whispered, if said at all.

By Glenn Kessler | January 29, 2011; 1:30 PM ET


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