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Obama's caution on Egypt is winning no friends

Mark Mardell | 19:02 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011

A fire burns at the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party in Cairo

President Barack Obama's administration is putting pressure on the Egyptian government to change. But it is not backing a change of government. It is a critical difference.

The president's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, has said that the administration is reviewing the money it gives to Egypt. The country gets around $1.3bn (£800m) a year in military aid alone. Mere millions go to supporting democratic movements and other civilian aid.

But in a performance that did not suggest the administration had yet alighted upon a firm policy, beyond denouncing violence, the word Mr Gibbs used repeatedly was "monitoring". He suggested that if the images we are all watching continued, aid might be reduced or halted. But it scarcely felt like a strong threat. The president has not spoken to President Hosni Mubarak. The White House is watching, and waiting. The coin is still spinning, and the administration is not eager to make a wager based on how it will fall.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been speaking. Her first comments were about the demonstrations themselves. She has said that she was "deeply concerned" by the police violence and urged the government (in other words, President Mubarak) to restrain them. She said the steps taken against social media should be reversed.

Then she went on to draw lessons. There were "deep grievances" and reform was "critical" and "imperative", she said. The Egyptian government should see its people as partners, not as a threat. This is a change of tone, not so much from the past day or two, but from what went before.

There is plenty of evidence for the prosecution. I have just watched an Egyptian journalist on BBC World television say that the tear gas canisters fired by police were made in the US. Over dramatic pictures of billowing smoke, he says America likes strong men without democratic backing, because "it is easy to pick up the phone and tell the leader what is expected from them".

In the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl argues that while President George W Bush pushed for democratic reform, Barack Obama, believing he was being more pragmatic, embraced Mr Mubarak. Mr Diehl says it may be remembered as "one of the most short-sighted and wrongheaded policies the United States has ever pursued in the Middle East".

So some see Mrs Clinton's statement today and Mr Obama's yesterday as furiously back-pedalling away from a policy doomed to failure.

Yasser M El-Shimy is an expert on US policy in the Middle East, who lived in Egypt for 25 years but is now in the process of becoming an American citizen. He tells me that the Obama approach is the wrong side of a thin line.

If there is a democratic revolution, US-Egyptian relationships are in for a world of trouble. They think they can walk a fine line but the Egyptian public is listening to what they have been saying about the government being stable. There will be some anti-US sentiment among the protesters because they believe the US has been trying to prop up the regime until the last moment.

Some are openly arguing the opposite point of view, that democracy would "open up the flood gates" to Islamic revolution.

But one British think tank, Quilliam argues fear of the banned Muslim Brotherhood is over-played, not least by the organisation itself.

Brotherhood claims to be the "only real opposition" to dictatorial regimes in the Middle East should be viewed with a considerable amount of scepticism in future. Given the opportunity, many people in the Arab countries clearly prefer civil, non-sectarian parties over Islamists.

Mr El-Shimy agrees, telling me the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood lurking in the shadows waiting to take over is false. He argues that it is Mr Mubarak's policy of regression that has allowed it to flourish, and that in a real democracy it would be a power in the land, but not the dominant one.

There seems little doubt the US administration is playing catch-up, and is in a very awkward position. It is not ready to abandon its octogenarian ally of 30 years, but it is urging him to change and change quickly. This is all moving very quickly but at the moment both the White House and the US state department are being ignored by their allies, while not going far enough to make new friends.

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