The tumultuous events in Tunisia last week have almost vanished from the newspapers as mass protests against the repressive rule of U.S. ally President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt have seized the headlines. The stakes for U.S. foreign policy are much greater in Egypt, a much larger, much more strategically important country than Tunisia, but the protests in both countries appear to have similar roots -- discontent with political systems that have failed to provide their people with government that meets their basic needs, both in terms of economic opportunity and respect for basic freedoms and human dignity.
The Obama administration is not unaware of these problems of governance, that are especially acute in countries like Egypt with tens of millions of unemployed or under employed young people, looking for ways to improve their lives. However, the administration has failed to find a consistent message on the need to promote human rights and democracy in the Middle East.
Sometimes the administration calls for political reform, but in the same breath it is also calling for "stability" -- Secretary Clinton's statement yesterday in which she claimed, improbably, that the Egyptian government was "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people" even as plain clothed thugs from the state security police were arbitrarily detaining peaceful demonstrators and beating them with truncheons and iron bars in downtown Cairo, is a good example of the administration failing to promote a message that can be construed as supportive of human rights and democracy in the region.
President Obama's speech in Cairo speech set up a framework of "mutual interests" between the U.S. government and Arab governments, but the administration has failed to give content to what these mutual interests are. Stability is a fine objective -- no one, especially not people who live in these countries, wants unrest and instability -- but it means different things to different people. When Mubarak hears the word stability he takes it as a green light to continue with his business as usual. The administration sometimes says that the route to stability lies through reform, more responsive governance, meeting the legitimate demands of the people, even human rights, but it has failed to communicate that message effectively or consistently.
The administration's response to the Egyptian parliamentary elections last November is a good example. The fact that the parliamentary elections were a brazen sham is a problem for the United States. As a major backer of Mubarak's 30 year rule, Washington is seen as carrying a degree of responsibility for what its favored ally does. It is a bigger problem for the Egyptian government. Holding sham elections is a sign of weakness, it is counterproductive, it makes the government less legitimate, more vulnerable to amorphous street protests, or to destabilization by extremists and demagogues.
Surely this is where the real mutual interest between the U.S. government and the Egyptian government lies: finding a policy that builds stability on the basis of human rights, democracy and respect for the rule of law. The U.S. has no interest in perpetuating authoritarian governance in Egypt or anywhere else, and no responsible government should seek to hold on to power through disregarding the legitimate demands of its people.
Pursuing this kind of mutual interest may lead to tension in the relationship with President Mubarak, but so be it. If Mubarak and his supporters will not respond to the basic needs of their people then they are the problem. The legitimate discontent of tens of millions of Arab youths is not going away. Either that anger can be channeled into building the peaceful prosperous societies of the future or it will be a force for instability throughout the world.