Ghost Riders in the Media Sky

I'm not going to criticize the Obama Administration's hands-off approach to the nascent Egyptian Revolution. As much as we'd like to believe we can shape events on the streets of Cairo from the desks of Washington DC, the fact is that we can't. But I will link to this Politico piece that debunks Obama's attempt to somehow claim credit for "privately" (oh, if only you had been there!) pushing Mubarak to "reform" his government. Hey, I thought it was jobs, jobs, jobs over there at the White House:

"The way [Obama has] confronted it, is he went to Cairo and talked about the need, the universal human rights of people. He’s on several occasions directly confronted Pres. Mubarak on it. And pushed him on the need for political reform in his country," Axelrod told ABC's Jake Tapper Friday, on the adviser's last day of work at the White House.

"To get ahead of this?" Tapper asked.

"Exactly. To get ahead of this. This is a project he’s been working on for two years and today the president is working hard to encourage restraint and a cessation of violence against the people of Egypt," said Axelrod.

"Nice myth," said one human rights advocate I asked about Axelrod's description.

There are a couple of problems with Axelrod's account. First, there's little public evidence that Obama "confronted" Mubarak on these issues. White House officials have said the subjects were raised in meetings between the men, but when the two met publicly there was little indication that Obama was pressuring Mubarak on the issue.

During the 25-minute press availability during the pair's Oval Office meeting in August 2009, Obama didn't mention the issue. Mubarak was the one who brought it up, telling the press how "friendly" their exchange on the subject was and suggesting a rather leisurely timeline to make changes.

"We discussed the issue of reform inside Egypt. And I told to President Obama very frankly and very friendly that I have entered into the elections based on a platform that included reforms, and therefore we have started to implement some of it and we still have two more years to implement it," Mubarak said. "Our relations between us and the United States are very good relations and strategic relations. And despite some of the hoops that we had with previous administrations, this did not change the nature of our bilateral relations."

The other sleight-of-hand in Axelrod's comment is his suggestion that Obama's visit to Cairo in June 2009 was intended or perceived as speaking hard truths to Mubarak. To the contrary, many in the region, in other Muslim countries, and the U.S. ( see here and here), saw the choice of Egypt for Obama's first speech to the Muslim world as a huge laurel for Mubarak, not an albatross. Obama's speech made no direct reference to political reform or human rights issues in Egypt, save for a passing reference to Christian Copts there. There were alsoreports that the U.S. eased up on democracy promotion there.

I can understand the impulse to try to catch a little "democracy" fire - we all want to be on the side of the vanguard of "change," right? - but the White House spin here was pretty pitiful. Even if Mubarak was some sort of tyrannical El Supremo, and he's not at least not compared to many of his neighbors, our Smart Power set doesn't seem to realize that when the Man On the Cairo Street starts demanding "reform" or "justice," it is not of the sort that would be recognizable to American progressives who are temperamentally sympathetic to those buzzwords.

What's happening is Egypt is serious business. Maybe the protesters in the streets are on the side of the angels, and just want economic reforms (query whether progressive sophisticates realize Egypt has the sort of neo-socialist economy that Obama has been trying to impose over here) and free elections. But when there is chaos in the streets, history has taught that fortune favors those who are the best positioned and best organized to seize power. That ability lies with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been waiting for this moment literally for decades. If Obama wants further opportunity to lecture privately an Egyptian president over human rights, then setting up a situation where the incumbent Mubarak is deposed or destabilized in favor of the Brotherhood will give you plenty of opportunities to do so.

Trying to score political points over some unheard attempt to "ride" Hosni Mubarak over human rights would be contemptible, if it were not so laughable.

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