“The day is coming when the promise of a fully free and democratic world, once thought impossible, will also seem inevitable. The people of Egypt should be at the forefront of this great journey, just as you have led this region through the great journeys of the past.”
This extract from a stirring speech was not made in the last few days by Mohamed ElBaredi or Ayman Nour in an attempt to rouse the crowds to overthrow Mubarak. It was in fact spoken in 2005 by the then American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the American University of Cairo. Rice told her audience this call for democracy marks a change from long-standing American policy. “For 60 years, my country pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither,” she said. “Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Rice’s public demand for Hosni Mubarak to call elections was as startling as it was embarrassing for one of the US’s greatest allies. But in the end pragmatic priorities triumphed over promises. The US glossed over Mubarak’s sham poll victory later that year and the true state of affairs was shown by George W Bush when he met Mubarak at Sharm el Sheikh in January 2008. Bush spoke about building a “democratic future” in Egypt but problems elsewhere meant he had to rely on Mubarak’s support. “It’s important for the people of Egypt to understand our nation respects you, respects your history, respects your traditions and respects your culture,” Bush said. “Our friendship is strong. It’s one of the main cornerstones of our policy in this region, and it’s based on our shared commitment to peace, security and prosperity.”
Bush’s blarney may have boosted Mubarak’s ego but did not fool ordinary Egyptians. Despite financial largesse of $33 billion in military aid in the last 25 years, opinion polls show anti-Americanism to be higher in Egypt than in any other Middle Eastern country. Egyptians are all too aware of the dirty work their government does on behalf of the US. Egypt was home to many American cases of extraordinary rendition.
Al Qaeda camp commander Ibn-al Shaykh al-Libi, was captured by US forces in late 2001 and taken to a prison in Cairo where he was repeatedly tortured by Egyptian officials. Mamduh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian citizen was apprehended in October 2001 in Pakistan and taken to a prison in Cairo where he too was repeatedly tortured by Egyptian officials. Habib was beaten frequently with blunt instruments, including an object similar to an “electric prod.” His jailers told him if he did not confess to belonging to al Qaeda he would be anally raped by specially trained dogs. Habib was returned to later sent to Guantanamo after his stint in an Egyptian prison. The Mubarak regime’s contempt for due process was an ideal fit with Bush’s “war on terror”.
Condoleezza Rice’s own tune was changed just two years after she attempt to rouse the nation to democracy. As the New York Times noted, underground media were full of state-sanctioned atrocities in the weeks before Rice arrived in the country. “Cellphone videos posted on the Internet showed the police sodomising a bus driver with a broomstick. Another showed the police hanging a woman by her knees and wrists from a pole for questioning. A company partly owned by a member of the governing party distributed tens of thousands of bags of contaminated blood to hospitals around the country,” the Times said. But faced with chaos in Iraq, rising Iranian influence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US decided stability was a more important priority than encouraging freedoms for everyday Egyptians.
The Obama administration has shown an equal unwillingness to rock the boat. Obama did show Rice-like signs of bucking the trend when he went to Egypt in June 2009 and made a historic speech in Cairo about US-Muslim relations. He told his audience no system of government should be imposed by one nation by another. “That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people,” he continued. “Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But 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.”
The crowd enthusiastically applauded Obama for his lesson on freedom but may not have been so happy with what he told Mubarak when they met at the White House two months later. “I want to thank the government of Egypt for being an Arab country that has moved forward to try to strengthen Iraq as it emerges from a wartime footing and a transition to a more stable democracy.” Once again, the needs of Egyptians played second fiddle to the Great Game of American oil security in the Middle East. As FDR said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1930s, “he may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.” The now powerless Americans are now watching Al Jazeera like everyone else wondering whose sonofabitch will emerge victorious from Tahrir Square in the coming weeks.