Much of what was written from Egypt on and after January 25, 2011 was captivating and intense — as one might expect from reporters witnessing a democratic movement overthrowing a dictator. But the Beltway reporting that tried to explain US policy was another matter.

As a general rule, diplomatic reporting hews fairly closely to State Department priorities or other elite interests. International crises are of greater concern when they can be used to serve certain domestic political purposes or storylines. On Egypt, it was often difficult to keep up with the line of the Obama administration at any given moment: Tacit support for President Husni Mubarak gave way to gentle suggestions that he adopt unspecified “reforms,” which shifted to a preference for handing over control to Mubarak ally ‘Umar Sulayman. The line shifts aside, putting a good face on US policy was a challenge considering the immediate context: a brave uprising against a dictator long supported by the United States. Mubarak’s rule had been secured with a series of sham elections, as political opponents were imprisoned and sometimes tortured. And successive US administrations had propped up his regime since 1981 with some $60 billion in aid, more and more of it military as the years went by.

Much of the early coverage presented the story as a White House “balancing act.” A typical sentence from the January 26 New York Times: “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,” what faced the US was “a delicate diplomatic challenge.” On the “NBC Nightly News,” viewers heard that there was “a bit of a tightrope that the US has to walk here.” Even after Mubarak’s grip on power was long gone, the tightrope imagery remained — as in a March 18 Washington Post headline, “Clinton Walks Fine Line in Tunis, Cairo.” In the New York Times, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Egypt occasioned another reference to “the fine diplomatic line that the Obama administration has had to walk.” What was on the other side of that fine line? Journalists did not always make it entirely clear. Americans unaware of the decades of US backing for Mubarak, and the nature of his regime, were left to conclude that Washington had chosen the only good option — in effect excusing the US support for autocracy. As ABC anchor Diane Sawyer put it: “It’s often been said that saints are in short supply in world politics. Husni Mubarak was America’s security bulwark for 30 years.”

The problem, of course, is not that Mubarak is ineligible for sainthood. By the time hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were marching to demand an end to his dictatorship, Mubarak’s hideous record of repression was impossible to ignore. This reality led some papers to publish articles meditating upon US support for similarly heavy-handed regimes — though these stances were often presented as facts everyone already knew. Hence the February 7 USA Today headline, “Once Again, the USA Must Untangle Ties to a Despot.” The day before, the New York Times ran a very similar piece about pro-dictator policies, which said that Egypt’s example “raises again the question of whether such a pattern can ever be broken…. The embrace of dictators has been so frequent over the last half-century that it obviously results from hard-headed calculation.” Both pieces relied heavily on so-called “realists” to explain why the US has amassed this sorry record. Other pundits just threw up their hands. Time magazine’s Joe Klein wondered how the US has managed to “get saddled with such creepy clients as [Afghanistan’s Hamid] Karzai and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, over and over again.”

But the flip side of acknowledging (or explaining away) US support for Mubarak was looking for signs of a break with the Egyptian autocrat. Some early accounts pushed the notion that the Obama White House had taken a strong pro-democracy stance; it was unclear whether this idea reflected wishful thinking or the line of the day coming from the State Department. A January 27 Washington Post piece (“As Arabs Protest, US Speaks Up”) declared that the White House was “openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations shaking the Arab Middle East,” and that the administration had “thrown US support clearly behind the protesters, speaking daily in favor of free speech and assembly even when the protests target long-time US allies such as Egypt.” The Post’s evidence, however, was sparse: a quote from Clinton advising Mubarak to respond to the needs of the Egyptian people and an anonymous official — hardly an indication of “speak[ing] up” in “open support.” A January 28 editorial in the Los Angeles Times seemed to rest on a similarly thin reed, arguing that the US support for Mubarak would place Washington “in a unique position to impress upon him the importance of democracy.”

Some reporting framed the problem as an inability of the White House to stage-manage the crisis. A piece in the February 6 New York Times bluntly took aim at the White House’s “mixed messages,” explaining them as a public relations problem: “Transmitting the right message to constituencies who hear them differently is a problem the administration has confronted from the start of the crisis.” To the Times, “the traditional American script” of prioritizing stability eventually had been “cast aside for the first time in three decades.” But the White House preference for “quiet diplomacy” came at a price: It “feeds the public perception in Cairo and elsewhere that Mr. Obama might be willing to let a moment of revolutionary opportunity pass for fear of its impact on American interests.” Two days later, the Times was again fretting that the White House policy might “feed a perception, on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, that the United States, for now at least, is putting stability ahead of democratic ideals.” Of course, that “perception” could be absolutely accurate — and totally unhelpful for US image-making.

A shift in coverage seemed underway after Egyptian popular pressure forced Mubarak to resign. As pro-democracy movements took root in other US-allied Arab countries, particularly Bahrain and Yemen, the Obama administration’s position on Egypt was recast as an example of quick, decisive support for the protesters. On March 11 the New York Times, under the headline “Obama Seeks a Course of Pragmatism in the Middle East,” presented an accounting of White House deliberations that relied heavily (as usual) on administration sources. Obama was, readers learned, pursuing “a policy of restraint” that amounted to “pragmatism over idealism.” The Times continued: Obama “has dialed down the vocal support he gave demonstrators in Cairo to a more modulated call for peaceful protest and respect for universal rights elsewhere.” The paper added that this “more cautious approach contrasts sharply with Mr. Obama’s response in North Africa, where he abandoned a 30-year alliance with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and has demanded the resignation of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya.” The theme began to recur. On March 12 the Times used the Bahrain protests to note, “In contrast to the uprisings in Egypt and Libya, Washington has continued to back the government of the Sunni royal family.” And two days later: “Though the United States eventually sided with the demonstrators in Egypt, in Bahrain it has instead supported the leadership while calling for restraint and democratic change.” It is hard to see the difference between “calling for restraint” and actual White House policy on Egypt in the early days of the anti-Mubarak uprising. But in the Times’ retelling, the White House spoke out with pro-democratic clarity.

Oddly, a March 16 piece recapping Clinton’s trip to Egypt noted that “many Egyptians remember more vividly” something else: Clinton’s endorsement of Mubarak’s rule as “stable” on the first day of protests, January 25. Perhaps the Times was right about the White House’s problem being one of “transmitting the right message to constituencies who hear them differently.” Or perhaps Egyptians recall contemporary events more clearly than the New York Times does.

How to cite this article:

Peter Hart "What’s the Line?," Middle East Report 258 (Spring 2011).

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