WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama tried the impossible: winning the hearts and minds of Egyptians furious with their autocratic ruler while assuring a vital ally that the United States has his back.
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The four-minute speech Friday evening represented a careful balancing act for Obama. He had a lot to lose by choosing between protesters demanding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down from a government violently clinging to its three-decade grip on the country.
"The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful," the president said.
Yet he offered no ultimatum or specific demand, saying instead that Mubarak had a "responsibility to give meaning" to his pledges of better democracy and more economic opportunity.
The US response is challenged by a massive mismatch in the perception and reality of its power. Despite spending billions in Egypt to establish a bulwark of American influence in the Middle East, the US has little capacity to determine whether the 82-year-old Mubarak weathers the protests or is toppled, analysts and past administration officials say.
In his first television appearance since protests erupted three days ago, Mubarak said Friday he asked his Cabinet to resign. He said he would reconstitute it yet outlined no concrete democratic reform. He also defended the brutal crackdown on protesters, who've faced baton beatings, water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas.
Speaking shortly after, Obama didn't endorse regime change. Nor did he say that Mubarak's announcement was insufficient. Instead, he said he personally told Mubarak to take "concrete steps" to expand rights.
Does that mean that Mubarak should step down after three decades in
power? Should he announce that he won't run again for president? What
about constitutional changes? Is it time to scrap emergency laws in
place since 1981?
Administration officials would not say.
address was the most forceful of the day, but it stuck largely to the
script already set by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
"What will eventually happen
in Egypt is up to Egyptians," Clinton said, noting that the Egypt's
government could ease tensions by rapidly introducing democratic reform.
"That moment needs to be seized, and we are hoping that it is."
legitimate grievances that have festered for quite some time in Egypt
have to be addressed," Gibbs said. "And violence is not the response."
reality is that the United States can do little to control or direct
the anger in the Arab world unleashed two weeks ago when Tunisia chased
its long-time ruler from power. Yet the US can do severe harm to its own
interests by coming out too forcefully for or against the uprising.
perceived ability to pick and choose governments is limited to a very
few places. It does not wield that power in the Middle East, where
Islamic parties completely opposed to the United States are often the
most likely democratic alternatives.
"This is the most serious
foreign policy crisis the administration has faced," said Aaron David
Miller, who worked two decades at the State Department and is now a
scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "The paradox is, there is little
if anything the administration can do."
That doesn't mean it won't try.
White House said earlier Friday it would review the $1.5 billion in
annual aid to Egypt, an unsubtle warning that it still has some pull
The State Department issued an unusual warning to
Americans to avoid all but essential travel to Egypt at the height of
the winter tourism season.
"The US doesn't believe revolutions
are the way to go," said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations and a State Department specialist on the Middle East
under President George W. Bush. "Revolutions are violent. They have
Still, rhetoric matters. After spending
billions backing its few Arab friends, the US has damaged credibility in
the Arab world, leaving a narrow space for Washington policymakers.
a bold statement of solidarity, it's tough to see how the United States
will gain the sympathy of Egyptian protesters fighting a security
apparatus that has worked closely with American counterparts and may be
using US equipment to repress them.
Obama aimed high: "The people
of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to
peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the
ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights and the
United States will stand up for them everywhere."
But he tempered
the bold idealism of a world of universal rights with a strong plea for
peaceful protests. And he was clear that Mubarak's government still had
some US support. "We are committed to working with the Egyptian
government and the Egyptian people," Obama said.
The need for
balance is obvious. Completely alienating Mubarak would be a disaster
for the US if his government weathers the storm, possibly harming
cooperation in the Mideast peace process or on counterterrorism.
Carpenter, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
said the United States will have more options once it becomes clear
which side will prevail. "We cannot dictate anything," he said.
Others decried what they deemed a reactive approach to US foreign policy.
don't side with the regime or the protesters when it matters," said
Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "By being
so cautious and cynical, we end up not winning the hearts and minds of