Egypt: who do you support?

“We believe the Egyptian government is stable”, said the US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley on the World Tonight last night.  Crowley was audibly uncomfortable at being pushed to repeat Hillary Clinton’s view from Tuesday that the Egyptian government "is stable”. However, the Egyptian government, said Crowley, repeating the other recent US government mantra, must be “responsive” to its people’s demands. Yes, it’s a tricky business holding to official government lines as things on the ground change day by day. The Egyptian government is “stable” but it should listen to the demands of the people on the streets (most of whom want rid of the president). Hmmm. After years acting as Egypt’s arms supplier extraordinaire – Egypt famously being the world’s second-biggest recipient of US military aid, behind only Israel (leaving aside statistical distortions from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) – the US is now concerned about how Egyptian protestors feel.  Well, about time perhaps. Like I say, fast-moving protests throw up some awkward challenges (that weird sound you can hear is probably the rustle of governments frantically trimming their geopolitical sails as protests erupt around the world).  “The will of the people”, said President Obama of the Tunisian protests, “proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator”, a stirring line from his State of the Union address on Tuesday. But also a pretty safe comment, 10 days after the crucial events that deposed Ben Ali. As Joshua Bowman notes, Obama has been far from consistent in supporting popular protests and the USA’s relatively vocal support for the “Jasmine Revolution” has itself contrasted with a guarded position over events in its closer regional ally Egypt.  Meanwhile, the UK is basically caught in the same position. William Hague talks about the Egyptian government “listening” to demonstrators as the means to secure “stability”. It’s a hard position to stick to. On the one hand there are thousands of angry protestors on the streets defying a blanket ban on demos, heavy-handed police blasting away with water cannon and tear gas, hundreds being arrested (and at risk of torture: a perennial problem in Egypt) – and on the other you’ve got observers hoping the situation is going to be “managed” toward peaceful reforms. Frankly, it’s hard to see this happening at the moment. In a post last week I was sceptical about the supposed “domino effect” of the Tunisian protests spreading to other countries, but – fair enough – Egypt seems to have “domino-ed”. And it’s clearly derived some protest energy from its neighbour – reports of Egyptians with Tunisian flags in the streets of Cairo etc (and meanwhile Yemen looks rocky).

Yet it’s also worth keeping in mind that in Tunisia the future is still far from certain (a warrant for Ben Ali’s arrest appears to offer a kind of clarity, but who knows; meanwhile see the latest from Amnesty here) and the real test will as ever be whether there are lasting human rights reforms. The same goes for Egypt (check out its appalling human rights record here).  So, it’s all very well celebrating popular protests after they’ve unseated hastily-rebranded “dictators”, but it’s far more impressive to push for major change from the outset. Egypt needs major changes on human rights. So, fence-sitters …. whose side are you on?


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