TWO different White Houses, two different speeches.
In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood before an audience of 600 at the American University in Cairo, assailed the Egyptian government for intimidating and locking up protesters and called for President Hosni Mubarak to hold free elections. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” said Ms. Rice, infuriating the Mubarak government and heartening opposition leaders like Ayman Nour, an oft-jailed Parliament member, with whom she even held a meeting as part of her trip.
In June 2009, President Obama stood before an audience of 3,000 at Cairo University, and took a far gentler tone. “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose,” Mr. Obama said. But he then added, “There is no straight line to realize that promise.” Mr. Mubarak’s officials were euphoric after his speech; one called it “seminal.”
In the end, neither speech may have made much of a difference.
The chaos unfolding in Egypt is laying bare a stark fact, Middle East experts say: In the Arab world, American words may not matter, because American deeds, whatever the words, have been pretty consistent. Ever since that March morning 31 years ago, when Anwar el-Sadat reached out to clasp hands with Menachem Begin on the North Lawn of the White House after signing the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, the United States government has viewed the Egyptian government, no matter how flawed or undemocratic, as America’s closest ally in the Arab world.
Even when Ms. Rice and the Bush administration were infuriating Mr. Sadat’s successor, Mr. Mubarak, and calling for democracy in the Middle East, the reality was that the two governments were still, at their core, allies. Mr. Mubarak never forgave the Bush administration for the public flogging, officials in that administration say, but he met with Ms. Rice and President George W. Bush whenever they came through the region, and remained involved in Mr. Bush’s late efforts to negotiate Middle East peace.
And for all their calls for democracy, when it actually began happening in the Middle East, the Bush administration had to tack in the other direction. Palestinian elections in 2006, which the United States pushed for, led to victory for the militant Islamist organization Hamas, which the United States promptly blacklisted. Enter Mr. Obama, who came to office in 2009 vowing that he would make a major address from a Muslim capital early on, a promise he followed up with the Cairo speech. Determined not to repeat what it viewed as the mistakes of the Bush administration, the Obama administration limited criticism of Egypt to private conversations, and pointedly declined to publicly congratulate the government when it freed the jailed Mr. Nour, so as not to embarrass it.
Now, with the ascendance of democracy advocates on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and beyond, the United States has been tacking furiously again — this time to ally itself closer to the side of the protesters — while at the same time not getting too far away from its friend, Mr. Mubarak. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, encapsulated the administration’s dilemma Friday in words that made it clear that administration officials still hadn’t decided what to do. “We will be reviewing our systems posture based on events that take place in the coming days,” he told reporters, sounding like he was talking about a NASA launch, not chaos in Cairo.
A few hours later, his boss came out with the administration’s strongest posture to date on behalf of the protesters, trying to get ahead of any potential violent crackdown by the Mubarak government by calling on Egyptian authorities to “refrain from calling for any violence against peaceful protesters.” But he stopped short of calling for free and fair elections, limiting his remarks to a request for Mr. Mubarak to address the grievances of the Egyptian people.
America, said Robert Malley, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, is in an impossible hole. “Every time we open our mouth, it runs a risk of hurting the objective we’re pursuing,” he said. “The more we appear to be backing the regimes we’ve been backing for decades, the more we place ourselves on the wrong side of history and the more we alienate the constituencies who could be coming to power.”
But, Mr. Malley added, “the more we side with the protesters, the more we’re hurting the existing relationships and appearing to be fickle.” For instance, the Obama administration’s latest distancing of itself from Mr. Mubarak may not go over well. “It’s not clear to me that the protesters will take seriously expressions of solidarity from a country that’s been backing autocratic regimes,” Mr. Malley said.
Martin S. Indyk, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and a former United States ambassador to Israel, agreed. “We’re in completely uncharted territory,” he said. “This is a big deal with huge potential consequences for U.S. strategic interests in a vital region.”
The strategic importance of Egypt, the experts said, lies in its role as the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East. The United States could not have sustained the wars it fought in Iraq without logistical support from Egypt’s government. Oil for Europe comes through the Suez Canal. Egypt is the largest and most militarily powerful Arab country. And most important to the United States, it is the crux of any American effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mr. Sadat’s peace deal in 1979 with Mr. Begin made it next to impossible for other Arab states to contemplate going to war with Israel, and therefore opened a very slow — excruciatingly slow — process for the Arab world to come to terms with Israel.
All of that is why both of those Cairo speeches, for all of their oratorical differences, may not really have mattered at the end of the day, Middle East experts said. American governments need a partner in Egypt who supports the keystone of America’s Middle East policy, and Hosni Mubarak has been that partner for 30 years. “The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is the pillar of the structure in the Middle East,” said Edward P. Djerejian, a former American ambassador to Israel and Syria. “If the ’79 agreement goes asunder, everything falls apart. Everything falls apart.”