US Media Gloss Over American Role in Egyptian Repression

The Delicate Tightrope of Supporting a Dictator

The political context of the current Egyptian uprising is clear: The United States has steadfastly supported dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose rule has been marked by sham elections and the jailing and torture of dissidents, propping up his regime since 1981 with some $60 billion in aid, most of it military.

But since U.S. corporate media are accustomed to viewing international affairs through the lens of U.S. elite interests, much of the current coverage elides Washington's role, or presents it as a "tightrope" balancing act for the Obama administration.

As one New York Times story (1/26/11) put it, "The administration has tried to balance its ties to Mr. Mubarak with expressions of concern about rigged elections and jailed dissidents in his country." USA Today (2/1/11) announced: "The upheaval in Egypt has put the United States in a delicate diplomatic situation: pressing for a more democratic Egypt, but wary that too much change could threaten the stability that Egypt helps bring to the Middle East."

On the PBS NewsHour, Margaret Warner (1/31/11) said, "The chaos in Egypt posed a delicate diplomatic challenge for the United States: appealing for democracy without alienating an ally." Or as NBC Nightly News anchor Kate Snow (1/29/11) asked: "Is it a bit of a tightrope that the U.S. has to walk here, though, in terms of wanting to promote democracy on the one hand, but being a longtime ally of the Mubarak administration?"

An L.A. Times editorial (1/28/11) implausibly argued that the U.S. record of support for Mubarak would assist efforts to promote democracy: "As an ally and benefactor, the United States has helped prop up the 82-year-old strongman since he took power 30 years ago, and today it is in a unique position to impress upon him the importance of democracy."

Some of the recently released WikiLeaks cables on Egypt provided another window into media thinking on the issue. The January 28 New York Timesstory was headlined, "Cables Show Delicate U.S. Dealings With Egypt's Leaders." The same day, the London Guardian had a very different headline: "WikiLeaks Cables Show Close U.S. Relationship With Egyptian President." The Times account buried some of the more damning details, which make clear that U.S. officials are keenly aware of the prevalence of torture and brutality under Mubarak (FAIR Blog, 1/28/11).

ABC's Christiane Amanpour offered what amounted to a rationalization of U.S. support for Egypt, explaining (1/26/11) that

the implications are really big because this is very fundamental. Egypt receives the most American aid, more than $1 billion a year. It has the same goals as the United States against radicalization and terrorism, pro the Israeli peace process. But the United States, many people are saying, needs to get ahead of the curve, because otherwise it might be left behind as the people demonstrate their will.

Some outlets saw a distinct shift in the Obama administration's position--well ahead of any evidence to that effect. The Washington Post published a January 27 piece headlined "As Arabs Protest, U.S. Speaks Up," which declared that the White House was "openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations shaking the Arab Middle East," adding that the administration had "thrown U.S. support clearly behind the protesters, speaking daily in favor of free speech and assembly even when the protests target longtime U.S. allies such as Egypt."

The Post's evidence, however, was thin: a quote from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that the Mubarak government should "respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." The strongest support for the notion that the U.S. was backing the street protests came from an anonymous administration official--hardly an indication of "speak[ing] up" in "open support."

Another Post article tried to make the case again on January 31:

The Obama administration firmly aligned itself on Sunday with the protest movement that has overtaken Egypt, calling for an "orderly transition" to a more representative government amid rising U.S. concern that the demonstrations are turning violent and that unrest could spread across the Arab world.

Several paragraphs later, though, the Post added that the "shift in message had no visible effect in Cairo and other Egyptian cities," and reported that prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei's assessment was that the rhetoric "had landed 'like lead" in the Egyptian capital."

It would seem that Egyptians have a clearer view of U.S. policy than many pundits and mainstream journalists. That point was driven home when NBC reporter Richard Engel, to his credit, brandished a tear gas canister that had been fired at protesters (1/28/11):

These were the tear gas canisters that were fired by all those riot police today. And if you look at them closely, they say clearly in English, "Made in the USA." Egyptians have been picking them up, they've been looking them over.

But then, as if this straightforward illustration of the U.S. role in Egyptian repression was too revealing, Engel qualified his observation: "And from an Egyptian perspective, it does seem like Mubarak and the United States are working together. So the U.S. is walking a fine line here."

It does not, in fact, take an "Egyptian perspective" to appreciate how crucial U.S. support has been to the Mubarak dictatorship. One only needs to look at the history of the past three decades--a history U.S. media would prefer that we overlook, or treat as part of a delicate "balancing act."

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