The political context of the current Egyptian uprising is clear: The United States has steadfastly supported dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose rule has been marked by sham elections and the jailing and torture of dissidents, propping up his regime since 1981 with some $60 billion in aid, most of it military (Congressional Research Service, 2/1/11).
But since U.S. corporate media are accustomed to viewing international affairs through the lens of U.S. elite interests, much of the early coverage elided the nature of Washington’s role, presenting the crisis as a “tightrope” balancing act for the Obama administration.
As the New York Times (1/26/11) put it, “The administration has tried to balance its ties to Mr. Mubarak with expressions of concern about rigged elections and jailed dissidents in his country.” On the PBS NewsHour, Margaret Warner (1/31/11) said, “The chaos in Egypt posed a delicate diplomatic challenge for the United States: appealing for democracy without alienating an ally.” Or as NBC Nightly News anchor Kate Snow (1/29/11) asked: “Is it a bit of a tightrope that the U.S. has to walk here, though, in terms of wanting to promote democracy on the one hand, but being a longtime ally of the Mubarak administration?”
Pundits attempting to walk that tightrope wound up looking rather wobbly. L.A. Times columnist Doyle McManus argued (2/3/11) that the United States “has attempted a difficult balancing act for decades where Egypt is concerned.... In Egypt and elsewhere, the United States has tried to promote democracy and preserve stability at the same time.” McManus wound up acknowledging that “Washington has usually opted for stability first,” and that the Obama administration had mostly done the same—which doesn’t sound like much of a “balance.”
Nevertheless, an L.A. Times editorial (1/28/11) implausibly argued that the U.S. record of support for Mubarak would mean that “it is in a unique position to impress upon him the importance of democracy.”
Some of the recently released WikiLeaks cables on Egypt provided another window into media perceptions. The January 28 New York Times story was headlined “Cables Show Delicate U.S. Dealings With Egypt’s Leaders.” The same day, the London Guardian had a very different headline: “WikiLeaks Cables Show Close U.S. Relationship With Egyptian President.” The Times account buried some of the more damning details, which make clear that U.S. officials were keenly aware of the prevalence of torture and brutality under their longtime ally’s regime (FAIR Blog, 1/28/11).
Some outlets saw a distinct shift in favor of Egyptian democracy on the part of the Obama administration, despite a lack of evidence to that effect. A January 27 Washington Post piece, headlined “As Arabs Protest, U.S. Speaks Up,” declared that the White House was “openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations shaking the Arab Middle East,” adding that the administration had “thrown U.S. support clearly behind the protesters, speaking daily in favor of free speech and assembly even when the protests target longtime U.S. allies such as Egypt.”
The Post’s evidence, however, was thin: a quote from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that the Mubarak government should “respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” The strongest support for the notion that the U.S. was backing the street protests came from an anonymous administration official—hardly an indication of “speak[ing] up” in “open support.”
The White House’s apparent reservations about Egyptian democracy were echoed by some pundits. Writing about Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, Time’s Joe Klein (2/3/11) noted that “the tangible fruits of the Freedom Agenda turned out to be mostly rotten”—by which he meant elections had produced results the U.S. disapproved of. Klein voiced a preference for “a careful transition from autocracy to something more benign”—preferably with the military in the lead.
This inclination was shared by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (2/4/11), who wrote that “our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time” (a derogatory slogan that originated with apologists for South African apartheid—e.g., Thomas Sowell, Chicago Tribune, 8/17/85). Krauthammer recommended that the military impose “a period of stability during which secularists and other democratic elements of civil society can organize themselves for the coming elections and prevail.” In other words, democracy can wait until we know it will produce the right results.
Even outside the opinion pages, some journalists stressed the potential drawbacks to letting Egyptians decide their fate. The Washington Post (2/4/11) reported that the White House struggled with how much support to lend to the push for democracy,
Whether or not it was “uncomfortable,” the Bush administration sought to overturn those election results by stoking a Palestinian civil war, from which Hamas emerged victorious. The policy from that point on was to resist any further attempts at democracy, including a threat to withhold aid in the event of a vote (Guardian, 1/24/11).
The fear, as the Post put it, would be elections turning out the wrong way, granting more political power to the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood: “Such a victory would put Obama in a place similar to the one Bush found himself in after the 2006 Palestinian elections, and would challenge his pledge to allow Egyptians to determine their political future.”
While pundits like Klein (2/3/11) wondered how the U.S. has managed to “get saddled with such creepy clients as [Afghanistan’s Hamid] Karzai and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, over and over again,” Egyptians would seem to have a clearer understanding of the U.S.’s role. When NBC reporter Richard Engel, to his credit, brandished a tear gas canister that had been fired at protesters (1/28/11), he noted that “they say clearly in English, ‘Made in the USA.’”
But then, as if this straightforward illustration of the U.S. role in Egyptian repression was too revealing, Engel qualified his observation: “And from an Egyptian perspective, it does seem like Mubarak and the United States are working together. So the U.S. is walking a fine line here.”
It does not, in fact, take an “Egyptian perspective” to appreciate how crucial U.S. support has been to the Mubarak dictatorship. One only needs to look at the history of the past three decades—a history U.S. media would prefer that we overlook, or interpret as part of a delicate “balancing act.”