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Obama, Mubarak, and the Iron Cage of Liberalism

When a nonviolent battle is fought before curious, and sometimes fearful, international audiences, Western politicians face a near impossible task in supporting blatantly dictatorial regimes.
Daniel Ritter
10 February 2011

As unarmed Egyptian revolutionaries continue their massive protests with an eye to ousting their president, Hosni Mubarak, the US Government has struggled to find its feet in the unfolding drama. When the protests began in reaction to events in Tunisia, Washington initially backed Mr. Mubarak’s attempts to restore order. While emphasizing that violence should be avoided, this advice was directed at the pro-democracy movement and the government alike. President Obama, and anyone else associated with this administration, outright refused to call for Mr. Mubarak to step down.

However, as the nonviolent revolution maintained its course, despite the despicable attempts by the Egyptian government to paint the movement in a negative light, the US has increasingly thrown its support behind the people. In Israel and elsewhere, this perceived abandoning of a long-time ally has been criticized as naïve and potentially destabilizing of the region. These critics seem to assume that Mr. Obama was not previously aware of the nature of Mr. Mubarak’s regime, and that he has all of the sudden come to realize that the Egyptian president is indeed a dictator. In response to this newly discovered information, the critics continue, the U.S. has chosen to support the brave people of Egypt.

But this understanding of the last week’s deterioration of international relations between Mr. Mubarak and Washington completely misses the point. Mr. Obama is not endorsing the revolution because he truly wants to see democratic reform in Egypt. After all, Mr. Mubarak has been an invaluable ally and an important guarantor of a semblance of stability in the Middle East for the past thirty years. His dismissal from power will almost certainly upset the status quo in the region and possibly threaten the long-lasting peace between Israel and the planet’s largest Arab country. Furthermore, the US turning its back on a loyal ally sends a dangerous message to other collaborators in the region and around the world: In the face of a popular challenge you too may be abandoned, regardless of your “past service.” If this message is heard, US allies may think twice before prioritizing American interests over those of its own citizenry.

But if these are the very considerable risk the United States faces in siding with the protesters, then how can this change of allegiance be explained? To make sense of Washington’s sudden flip-flop we must accept that support of the revolution is not a matter of choice. Rest assured that Mr. Obama and virtually every government in Europe would have preferred to see Mr. Mubarak continue to rule Egypt with an iron fist for as long as possible, and then be replaced by someone with a similar approach to governance.

Mr. Obama, however, does not have a choice. While the overwhelmingly nonviolent protests in Egypt have been tarnished by violent incidents, the international (non-American) media has efficiently shown that such violence has been cynically incited by the government in order to discredit the revolutionary movement. And herein lays the reason why the United States cannot back Mr. Mubarak any longer: Constrained by the American master narrative of democracy and human rights, Mr. Obama finds himself caught in an “iron cage of liberalism.” Trapped by the type of rhetoric that has long defined the office of the American president, Mr. Obama must side with the protesters in order to maintain his credibility and avoid appearing ridiculously hypocritical.

In one of his earliest comments on the revolutionary situation, the American President declared that “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association. The right to free speech.” In short, the Egyptian people have the right to conduct a nonviolent revolution. As the world has witnessed the opposition’s mostly successful ability to remain peaceful in response to poorly camouflaged state violence, Mr. Obama has no choice but to turn his back on Mr. Mubarak.

Similarly, as a supposedly democratic leader and ally of the West, Mr. Mubarak too is caught in the iron cage of liberalism and cannot use his police force or army to repress the people as long as the world is watching. Resorting to open repression would make American support impossible. Mr. Mubarak knows this, which is why plain clothed members of the secret police participate in “pro-Mubarak” demonstrations. Violence must appear to be popular, as state-sponsored violence would be unacceptable to the West and thus accelerate Washington’s abandonment of its ally.

Despite the mounting problems his administration is wrestling with, perhaps Mr. Obama can find some comfort in the fact that he is not the first American president to be held hostage by American values. In response to Jimmy Carter winning the White House on a human rights platform in 1976, shrewd Iranian revolutionaries decided to emphasize the shah’s dismal human rights record in order to neutralize his American support. And in the Philippines, President Reagan reluctantly informed his friend Ferdinand Marcos that it was time to enter into early retirement after massive nonviolent protests made U.S. patronage impossible.

As events in not only Egypt, but also in Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen suggest, would-be revolutionaries are well-advised to employ nonviolent tactics in their struggles for democratization. When a nonviolent battle is fought before curious, and sometimes fearful, international audiences, Western politicians face a near impossible task in supporting blatantly dictatorial regimes. Mr. Obama and Mr. Mubarak are learning this the hard way.

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