Joan Smith: Egypt's lesson to Obama: prefer rights to tyranny

Sunday 30 January 2011 01:00 GMT

If you want to understand the extraordinary events in Egypt over the past few days, go to a novelist. Almost a decade ago, Alaa Al Aswany exposed the corruption and brutality of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

The Yacoubian Building is set in a Cairo apartment block where the grand art deco façade hides the fact that dozens of poor migrants are scraping a living in shacks on the roof. The son of the building's doorman could easily be among the protesters defying water cannon and rubber bullets on Egypt's streets. In the novel he applies to the police academy, only to discover that his father's occupation bars him from being admitted, and he ends up joining a banned Islamist organisation.

What motivated last week's demonstrations is precisely this kind of frustration and hopelessness: the Mubarak regime has provided neither material prosperity nor political freedom. Elections are rigged, opposition political parties squeezed or banned, and torture is used against detainees. Graduates can't find work.

Do these events signal the end of Mubarak's three decades of one-party rule? Egypt isn't Tunisia; Mubarak's internal security forces and army number 1.4 million and soldiers were on the streets yesterday; and foremost in the minds of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East envoy Tony Blair will be the impact of regime change on Israel. Leaked diplomatic cables show that before the protests the Obama administration had rowed back on criticism of its ally, trying to avoid the "public confrontations that had become routine" in recent years.

The dramatic scenes on Egyptian streets became an indictment of not just Obama's softly-softly approach but decades of short-sighted American foreign policy. The State Department has never had any illusions about the regime, condemning its "poor" human rights record and acknowledging that Egyptian security forces use "unwarranted lethal force". Egyptian police officers tortured 32 people to death between June 2007 and March 2008, while security forces killed four demonstrators in Mahalla al-Kubra, a textile town in the Nile delta, during protests against low wages in April 2008.

In the same year, US aid to Egypt totalled $1.7bn (£1.1bn), of which almost $1.3bn was in the form of military assistance; no wonder Mubarak's forces are well armed. This is Egypt's reward for making peace with Israel.

The two countries receive a third of the entire US aid budget each year; the ratio is two-to-one in Israel's favour, so that Egypt (population 79 million) got $1.55bn last year while Israel (population 7.5 million) got almost $3.2bn.

It's astonishing that successive US administrations haven't used this generous endowment to insist that Mubarak introduce political reforms, but Clinton's uncertain performance suggests that regional "stability" remains as pressing a consideration as human rights. Only in the past couple of days have Obama, Clinton and Blair realised that Egypt's much-lauded stability might be a chimera.

On Friday, a change of heart by the Muslim Brotherhood brought a religious element to what had been entirely secular protests; though banned, the Islamist group is well organised and could be the beneficiary if Mubarak is ousted. That would be a dreadful outcome for most Egyptians.

When will Western leaders learn that sucking up to tyrants isn't the way to bring about stable democratic governments in the Middle East?

Joan Smith is Political Blonde

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