Party Like It’s 1989

This is the Arab world’s Berlin Wall moment. The reaction of the American President is to say “we are witnessing history unfold”. Americans did not elect him to be a witness to history, but to be a participant. The administration has veered between outright support for Mubarak to gentle hints that he might go some time, but not yet. Joe Biden even declared that after 60 years of ‘emergency rule’, 30 of them under Mubarak, Egypt was not a dictatorship. The only consistent element of American policy is that the White House is reacting to events, and usually being taken by surprise.

But why was it a surprise? Condoleeza Rice set out in a speech in Cairo in 2005 that the Arab world was going to have to move democracy. If that pressure – the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda – had not been lifted, had not been replaced by Obama’s “Respect” policy, then things might be very different today. We might well be seeing the very smooth and peaceful transition that Obama has, belatedly, recognized is necessary.

The saddest thing is that this recognition is at the heart of the Obama policy: he has reluctantly accepted that democracy and freedom in Egypt are necessary. There was a time – as recently as January 19th 2009 – when the American President thought that freedom and democracy were good things, and that American policy should promote them.

Freedom and stability are not opposites. The most stable countries in the world are also among the most free. In the medium term, the end of the Arab dictatorships will be good for stability, but current American policy seems designed to ensure that there will be a major detour through a period of unstable anti-Americanism.

There are policies that the administration could have pursued over the past few weeks that would have smoothed the path to reform. Obama could have recognized that Mubarak, was finished. He could have told Mubarak it was time to go. He could have publicly announced that if Mubarak left Egypt within 48 hours he would be given asylum in the US, but after that he was on his own. But Hillary Clinton regards the Mubaraks as friends of her family.

All of this is mostly symbolic. If Mubarak flees Egypt, he is likely to go to London, where he owns a house. Britain does not have the same option that the US does of turning him away, as Mubarak’s wife and children are British citizens. But it would at least have declared to Egyptians that the US supports democracy. The actual policy has veered between being a bystander and being hostile to reform.

Change in Egypt has been painfully slow. On Thursday, the government talked up the idea that Mubarak was going to resign, and he then merely announced he was passing some powers to his vice-president. This might have worked two weeks earlier, but was nowhere near enough after 17 days of protests. All Mubarak has done is permanently damage the reputation of vice-president Suleiman.

It took more than half an hour for the White House to react to this at all. And even then, the reaction was woefully inadequate. And yet this is the biggest story of our age. All of the Arab world will change. Its significance is passing the White House by.

(This article written early February, 2011 before Mubarak stepped down.)

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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