Egypt Update: Presidential Silence Amid Turbulence

Last night in his State of the Union address, President Obama said, "The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people." The President failed to mention Egypt. A statement released by the State Department's P. J. Crowley went slightly further:

The United States supports the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people. All parties should exercise restraint, and we call on the Egyptian authorities to handle these protests peacefully.

Crowley issued the statement late on Tuesday, after news broke that protestors had been killed in some of the demonstrations and video emerged of a protestor facing down a riot-control vehicle. The Egyptian government had already made obvious that it did intend to act "peacefully."

The lack of a strong response from the administration leads Danielle Pletka to ask:

Do we support the aspirations of the people, as the president said? Or do we support the aspirations of various governments to remain in power, reforming occasionally and within limits in order to allow "the people" to blow off steam without fear of death?

Some in the administration have begun to take small steps toward a more assertive position. In Tunisia today, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, said:

The challenges that are faced here [in Tunisia] are in some cases shared. And we think governments everywhere should be finding ways to permit peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the media in order to give people a say in how they are governed and to give them a stake in the future.

The Obama administration could evaporate the confusion over its position through one of two actions. First, the president could directly state his support for the cause of the protesters in Egypt. Second, the administration could threaten cuts in aid to the Egyptian government if the regime continues to ban demonstrations and arrest and otherwise abuse protestors. This would be in line with measures I proposed yesterday on the Corner. The Egyptian regime has ignored the Obama administration's calls for "restraint." The specter of reduced funding would demand the regime's attention. Without the threat of such action or rhetoric straight from the President, the Mubarak regime is unlikely to respond.

While the administration's position remains in a gray area, events in Egypt continue to develop at a rapid pace:

  • Thousands of Egyptians defied a government ban today against protests.
  • Steven Cook reports that the only demands he heard thus far have been focused on political reform, despite a media focus on economic grievances. This is not simple class warfare, but an expression of a desire for basic human rights.
  • Security forces have killed five protestors and arrested 860, according to YNetNews, although hard numbers vary. These should be taken as rough estimates. The regime has also reportedly detained eight local Egyptian journalists.
  • The Egyptian stock market plunged 6.14 percent on Wednesday morning. The Egyptian pound fell to a six-year low. Much of the reduction came from local investors, who appear to be losing confidence in Egypt's stability in the short term.
  • Some report that Facebook is blocked in Egypt, following yesterday's blocking of Twitter. Facebook says it is unaware of any ban, but an anonymous source to the Atlantic reports a rumor that the regime may be attempting to steal activists' Facebook passwords.
  • Protestors have called for a large demonstration on Friday following weekly prayers.

The Egyptian people have made their beliefs clear through action. The U.S. should do the same. Inaction is a decision in itself: the choice not to take action and therefore to support the status quo. The status quo of support for autocratic regimes has not favored U.S. interests in the Middle East over the long term. Now we have an opportunity to adjust the architecture of our foreign policy in the region. As Max Boot says, "This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall."

Charlie Szrom is a senior analyst and the program manager of the Critical Threats project at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Mahmoud Saber

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