LONDON — The U.S. ambassador in Cairo warned Washington to be less confrontational in its dealings with Egypt, toning down human rights pressure to avoid jeopardizing relations with the Middle East ally, dozens of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks Friday showed.
The release of the cables came on a day of major anti-government protests in Egypt, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds after demonstrators threw stones at officers. The cables have the potential to aggravate the situation further because they offer specifics on police brutality and unease about the jailing of dissidents.
The cables show that Egypt's human rights record remained a constant sticking point in relations between Washington and Cairo, threatening ties that have improved since President Barack Obama came to power. A diplomat reported that despite repeated pressure from the U.S., overall progress in democratic reform remained slow, and Egypt continued to be suspicious of American interventions on human rights.
Before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's first visit to the Obama White House in 2009, U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey had recommended Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take a more private and less confrontational approach in pressuring Mubarak. She said he is a "tried and true realist, innately cautious and conservative, and has little time for idealistic goals."
She pointed out how former President George W. Bush's public "name and shame" approach had alienated Egypt from U.S. views.
"Mubarak viewed President Bush as naive, controlled by subordinates, and totally unprepared for dealing with post-Saddam Iraq, especially the rise of Iran's regional influence," the ambassador said.
The New York Times quoted a cable prepared for a visit by Gen. David H. Petraeus in 2009 describing how the U.S., while blunt in private, now avoided "the public confrontations that had become routine over the past several years.
Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts "are being stymied," and the regime is highly skeptical of Washington's role in promoting democracy, Scobey wrote in March 2009. Egypt also complained that any effort to open up will result in empowering the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the country's biggest opposition group, Scobey added.
Egypt is one of the most important U.S. allies in the Arab world. But as that nation sees the biggest anti-government protests in years, the public support of the U.S. government has become less assured.
Several cables reported how U.S. diplomats repeatedly pressed Egyptian officials – with limited success – about widespread police brutality against criminals and demonstrators and the jailing of dissidents and bloggers. Others showed how diplomats kept a close watch on reports of torture by police.
Mubarak's 2009 visit to Washington was widely viewed in Egypt as "a new beginning" that will "restore a sense of mutual respect that they believe diminished in recent years," she said.
In an interview broadcast live on YouTube on Thursday, Obama described Mubarak as a longtime ally.
But Obama added: "I've always said to him that making sure that they're moving forward on reform, political reform and economic reform, is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt."