President Obama and his Administration appear to have made a familiar deal with the devil in response to the popular pro-democracy uprising in Egypt.
Early on in the pro-democracy, anti-Mubarak protests, President Obama was walking a fine line between supporting the concerns and rights of the protesters while avoiding appearing as a puppet master in Egypt's internal affairs. It's a hard line to walk, and, initially, the Administration and its representatives, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appeared to be walking it well. On Tuesday night, following a day of both objections by the White House press corps to lack of access and floods of calls into the White House comment line demanding action, the President himself made remarks that echoed the cautious yet noncommittal tone and discussed his conversation with President Mubarak in which he asserts he urged restraint. All good.
Wednesday morning, however, things changed. A familiar pattern began to emerge.
Just hours after President Obama's remarks, Americans awoke to news of violent attacks on the peaceful protesters by paid thugs on horseback and camelback wielding whips, machetes and batons. To be clear: all evidence gathered by journalists on the scene testified to the fact that these men and boys were state-sponsored tools of oppression. This was not some kind of civil division within Egypt. Many of the pro-Mubarak forces were found, when captured, to have identification that showed they worked for the secret police. Guards were identified as having taken part in the looting and vandalism of the antiquities in the Cairo Museum, a repository of invaluable relics from 5,000 years of human history. Pro-democracy supporters formed a human chain around the museum to protect it from further damage. Other pro-Mubarak forces came from the prisons, where they were "released", sometimes kicked out at gunpoint from their jail cells, and told to go into Cairo to commit acts of violence and mayhem. They did so. There were numerous creditable reports of assaults and rapes of young women.
In addition, the Egyptian Army that had previously been supportive or, at a minimum, protective of the pro-democracy protesters now became largely passive. At times, the Army utilized its tanks to create a literal smokescreen by which the pro-Mubarak thugs could retreat. This is significant because, unlike the secret police which was under Mubarak's control, the Egyptian Army has traditionally been closely identified with the Egyptian people themselves and resistant to taking any action against fellow Egyptians.
While the media broadcast much of ongoing acts of violence live, Americans watched and waited for our leadership's response.
And we were not alone in waiting. By this point, the entire Middle East was watching and waiting to see how the United States would respond. Eventually, the response finally came, and it consisted, not of the President himself addressing the very acts of violence he decried just the night before, but rather of a statement from an evasive Robert Gibbs saying that the White House "deplores and condemns" the violence.
Late Wednesday night came the turning point. It was a quiet one, and, if you've haven't paid close attention to the history modern foreign policy of our great country, it would have been easy to miss. Around 11pm EST, the U.S. State Department alerted American citizens in Egypt who wanted to be evacuated to come immediately to the airport. The call was later amended to tell Americans to come to the airport ASAP after curfew had ended.
That call - or, in this case, that tweet - was an undeniable indication that a series of events familiar to student of U.S. foreign policy had indeed begun. The U.S. pulls out as many of its citizens as it can from a foreign country and explicitly tells remaining citizens that they will not be responsible for their safety. Next, the foreign government (usually a dictator or facsimile thereof that our government has been responsible for paying and keeping in power) begins to bring about a media blackout and to get rid of other objective observers.
The attempts to create a media blackout have begun. Building on the Wednesday attacks on journalists by pro-Mubarak thugs, journalists continue to be harassed and arrested. Among others, the Washington Post and the New York Times both report that their journalists and camera people have been arrested. There are numerous reports that, on orders from Egyptian officials, staff in the Cairo Hilton hotel are confiscating journalists' equipment. That hotel and others are reported to be asking journalists to leave the hotels in the city center and are moving them to hotels outside of the cities. Many journalists are also missing or are telling stories of being attacked in the streets and having their camera equipment stolen or destroyed. A statement from the U.S. State Department confirms that these actions are a concerted and organized effort but denies knowledge of who is responsible for organizing them.
In addition to the attempts to effect a media blackout, staff and observers from human rights organizations are also being rounded up and arrested. At this point, there are creditable reports that Amnesty International, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Center for Economic and Social Rights have all been affected. Further, there are reports that foreigners are being instructed to stay in homes or within hotels and not to come out on the streets in Cairo or they will be (and have been) arrested as "spies." Earlier today, the "new" Vice President of Egypt gave an interview on AlJazeera in which he made remarks about "foreign agitators" being responsible for the violence. Those remarks served two purposes: they lay the groundwork for a rationalization for the upcoming violence and they also mobilized anti-American sentiment.
Make no mistake about it: the purpose of the media blackout, the shut down of human rights advocacy organizations and the evacuation of American citizens and other non-Egyptians is to eliminate witnesses for the violence yet to come. It is violence in which the United States government, if history is any indication, will be complicit.
This is not just about the future of Egypt. It's about the future of this country and of our sons and daughters. We had a window of opportunity in this series of events to walk our talk. We had an opportunity to walk support for democracy, not just give lip service to it. We had an opportunity to maintain a position supportive of Israel without simultaneously participating in the oppression and brutal treatment of the rest of the populations in the Middle East. We had an opportunity - the first since the attacks of 9/11 - to back the "good guys" and to back away from our addiction to authoritarian regimes that inevitably go on to leverage anti-American sentiment to use against us.
We have influence. Our government is not powerless. After paying an average of $2 BILLION of our tax-payer dollars every year for the past 30 years to Mubarak and the Egyptian military, yes, we do have influence.
Only time will tell what's going to happen. The question is not whether our government is complicit, but to what degree and toward what end. We'll know soon. There's not much time left to wait for the answer.
Unless there is a significant change in direction in the immediate future, the Obama Administration - and the United States government as a whole - will have failed to capitalize on once again on a unique opportunity to correct course with regard to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and turn back the tide of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.
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