There seems to be one thing that unites all the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, from the young secular liberals who are jubilant that Egypt’s military has deposed President Mohamed Morsi to the Islamic militants who demand that he be reinstated: They all are furious with President Barack Obama and the United States of America.
On the one hand, the anti-Morsi crowds think Obama gave too much support to Morsi. On the other, the pro-Morsi marchers are calling Obama a hypocrite for giving lip service to democracy while doing nothing in the face of the military coup that overthrew Morsi’s democratically elected government.
As always, it is hard for the U.S. to get it right in the Arab world.
The current situation in Egypt is especially sticky. In principle, the overthrow of Morsi by the military — an act the administration still has not been willing to label a coup — would seem to go against the perennial American policy of supporting fledgling democracies. Indeed, it goes against U.S. law that requires a cut-off of military, economic and other aid to any country where the army tosses out a democratic government. Yet the Obama administration has yet to even use the word “coup” to describe what Egypt’s generals have done, let alone suspend the $1.5 billion in aid that goes to Egypt every year.
The reality, though, is that the authoritarian actions of the Morsi government were proving detrimental to the long-term prospects for permanent democracy in Egypt. After years of waiting for their chance, Morsi and his comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood were unable to restrain themselves from pushing too quickly toward the Islamic state they want. Perhaps just as damaging, they also proved themselves to be incompetent stewards of government.
Millions of protesters filled the streets to reject the slide away from democracy and toward theocratic rule. There was no vote and no election, but the will of the people was being expressed. That, too, is democracy, and Morsi refused to respond to that expression, so the military stepped in.
Will this lead to a restart for democracy or will the generals — hardly champions of human rights and free expression — continue to be the real rulers in Cairo, no matter what result a new election produces? Skepticism is warranted.
Meanwhile, it is worth asking if the Obama administration deserves some blame. Both Republican and Democratic critics in the U.S. are saying Obama was too timid, both in confronting Morsi as he edged toward autocratic rule and in calling out the Egyptian military for violations of human rights.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Martin Indyk, an ex-diplomat and adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said: “Our failure to stand against Morsi when he began trampling on minority rights convinced the secular opposition that we were now in his corner. We appeared to be shifting our support from one authoritarian pharaoh to the next.”
Obama apologists respond by saying the U.S. has limited leverage in Egypt and the rest of the turmoil-ridden Middle East and can hardly be blamed when there are sudden lurches in the political alignments within any Muslim nation. Maybe so, but on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria the perception is that Americans are on the wrong side again — which is not all that hard when there seems to be no obviously right side to be on.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for The Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.