Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians now protesting in Cairo and Alexandria appeared more emboldened than ever in their resolve to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed, the televised speech that Mubarak made on Tuesday evening promising not to seek another term appeared to stoke the protesters’ rage even further. “Get out now”, was their overwhelming response to the dictator.
Not surprisingly, majority Egyptians, groaning under the repressive rule of the dictator for 30 years, took the speech as a ruse to buy time and then consolidate his position once the protests subside.
It is now almost certain that no amount of skulduggery or shenanigans would do the trick for the rogue regime that has crushed any genuine yearnings for political and economic reforms in Egypt for decades.
As things stand now, Mubarak’s only chance to stay in power is if he orders a violent crackdown, and if the army obeys him. Neither is inevitable, but both, sadly, may still be possible.
If that happens, it will be a great setback not only for the Egyptians but also for the democracy-loving people all across the Arab world.
And here comes the role of the United States, a country which has the power and the ability to avoid the bloodshed and usher in a new era of peace and stability in the Arab region.
So far, though, the Obama administration has been ambivalent about its response to the unfolding crisis in Egypt in particular and the Middle East in general.
The pro-democracy protesters in Egypt say overwhelmingly that America is on the side of President Mubarak and not with them. They feel that way partly because American policy statements seem so nervous, so carefully calculated — and partly because these protesters were attacked with tear gas shells marked “made in USA.”
The American equivocation appears to stem from the Cold War era mentality, which in many ways still shapes the US foreign policy. In its obsession with fighting communism, Washington coddled and sustained dictators all across at the expense of alienating a vast majority.
No wonder, even after the collapse of communism 20 years ago, Washington still pursues the same policy of nurturing dictators. This time, of course, the obsession with communists has been replaced by radical Islamists.
This fear of radical Islamists filling the gap in Egypt after Mubarak’s departure might have contributed to the Washington’s conundrum.
The White House appears to be wrestling with a thorny question: how to abandon a long time ally like Mubarak, even if he has been corrupt and oppressive, especially for the fact that he had been a trusted friend in pursuing peace with Israel.
But the delay in sending a clear message to the embattled Egyptian leader is only exacerbating the clearly visible anti-American sentiment on the Arab streets in general and Egypt in particular.
Egyptian pro-democracy advocates are saying they feel betrayed that the Americans are obsessing on what might go wrong for the price of oil, for Israel, for the Suez Canal — instead of focusing on the prospect of freedom and democracy for the Egyptian people.
Ahmed Muhammad, a medical student, told the New York Times: “Egyptian people will not forget what Obama does today. If he supports the Egyptian dictator, the Egyptian people will never forget that. Not for 30 years.”
But if history is any guide, America has not behaved wisely at other historic turning points. It continues to pay a horrible price for clinging too long to Iran’s Shah before he was swept away by violent street protests in 1979.
Many Bangladeshis still cannot forgive America for siding with the Pakistani occupation forces during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.
There’s, however, a ray of hope on the horizon. Powerful Democrats and foreign policy experts are openly calling for a decisive action in Egypt.
“How we behave in this moment of challenge in Cairo is critical. It is vital that we stand with the people who share our values and hopes and who seek the universal goals of freedom, prosperity and peace”, wrote Senator John Kerry in a New York Times Op-Ed on Tuesday.
For three decades, the United States pursued a Mubarak policy. Now we must look beyond the Mubarak era and devise an Egyptian policy, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman added.
The awakening across the Arab world must bring new light to Washington, too, he wrote. “Our interests are not served by watching friendly governments collapse under the weight of the anger and frustrations of their own people, or by transferring power to radical groups that would spread extremism. Instead, the best way for our stable allies to survive is to respond to the genuine political, legal and economic needs of their people.”
Arshad Mahmud is a senior editor and Washington Correspondent for bdnews24.com.