Cable networks kept replaying a single shot from Tuesday’s protests in Egypt, a rooftop view of a massive crowd, where a banner was held aloft. “Yes We Can Too,” it read in English. It seemed to be a message directed at Barack Obama, who had used a similar slogan, and to the American people who had voted Obama into office. It was also a message that Obama would be likely to embrace. As the president said Tuesday night, in a statement in the White House Grand Foyer, directly below his family’s residence, “The United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Egypt and around the world.”
In Obama’s thinking, there are two principles, each tugging in a different direction, that are guiding the U.S. approach, say White House officials. The president laid them out in his 2009 speech to Cairo. First, the U.S. would continue to promote democratic values as universal rights. Second, the U.S. will not seek to impose any form of government, or specific set of rulers, on any foreign country. “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other,” Obama said in Cairo.
The third force tugging on Obama is the bundle of pragmatic interests of the United States–to have a stable partner in the Middle East, to prevent Egypt from becoming a haven for extremism, to maintain the shaky peace between Israel and its neighbors, and to keep the Suez canal open and safe, among others. The story of the last week has been the story of a White House coming to grips with, and juggling, these three priorities.
Last week, at the State of the Union, Obama declined to give an explicit mention to the uprising in Egypt, which had already begun. Instead, he hinted at the conflict, saying that the U.S. supported the “democratic aspirations of all people.” A week later, he was delivering his second stand-alone statement before television cameras about Egypt, following a second phone call with Hosni Mubarak that lasted about 30 minutes. In that talk, according to a White House aide, Obama “explained” to Mubarak that “an orderly transition can’t be prolonged” and that it must begin right away. Obama observed, according to aides, that it was clear how much the Egyptian president loved his country and how difficult the uprising had been for him.
Moments later, before the cameras, Obama pressed the case far further than one might have imagined a week earlier, when the U.S. government radiated anxiety with the weakening of the Mubarak regime. Obama tried to balance the three forces–his intention not to impose any solution, his support of democracy and U.S. national interests. It came out like this:
Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear — and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak — is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now. Furthermore, the process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties. It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that’s not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.
The hope of White House officials is that whatever happens in Egypt and whomever gains power, the U.S. will be able to establish a close relationship going forward. That is why the U.S. is now reaching out to the “broad spectrum” of voices. It is why many of those voices, including people tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, were invited to hear Obama speak in Cairo. No one can predict what will happen in the streets of Cairo tomorrow, let alone after the next Egyptian elections. But at least for now, Obama plans to stick to a road map he laid out when he visited that city nearly two years ago.