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Defining a Dictatorship: The US Role in Egypt

Yesterday (FAIR Blog, 1/27/11) the Washington Post tried to argue that U.S. policy under the Obama administration has shifted to one of open support for pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia. There was little, if any, evidence to support this idea.

Today (1/28/11) the New York Times steps in with a report based largely on WikiLeaks cables that paints a rather unflattering portrait of Obama policy towards Egypt.  As the Times put it, the cables

show in detail how diplomats repeatedly raised concerns with Egyptian officials about jailed dissidents and bloggers, and kept tabs on reports of torture by the police.

But they also reveal that relations with Mr. Mubarak warmed up because President Obama played down the public "name and shame" approach of the Bush administration. A cable prepared for a visit by Gen. David H. Petraeus in 2009 said the United States, while blunt in private, now avoided "the public confrontations that had become routine over the past several years."

The Times story unfortunately buries some of the most damning details:

American diplomats also cast a wide net to gather information on police brutality, the cables show. Through contacts with human rights lawyers, the embassy follows numerous cases, and raised some with the Interior Ministry. Among the most harrowing, according to a cable, was the treatment of several members of a Hezbollah cell detained by the police in late 2008.

Lawyers representing the men said they were subjected to electric shocks and sleep deprivation, which reduced them to a "zombie state."  They said the torture was more severe than what they normally witnessed.

To the extent that Mr. Mubarak has been willing to tolerate reforms, the cable said, it has been in areas not related to public security or stability. For example, he has given his wife latitude to campaign for women's rights and against practices like female genital mutilation and child labor, which are sanctioned by some conservative Islamic groups.

So a key U.S. ally is run by a torturing, election-rigging authoritarian who the U.S. mostly refrains from criticizing in public. "Cables Show Delicate U.S. Dealings With Egypt's Leaders" would seem to be a rather gentle way of putting it. Scanning coverage of the protests in Egypt overall, it seems like long-standing U.S. support (including billions in military aid) receives scant attention.

But U.S. policymakers are being asked the tough questions, right? Not exactly. Here's Jim Lehrer at the PBS NewsHour (1/27/11) in an exclusive sit-down with Joe Biden:

LEHRER: The word to describe the leadership of Mubarak and Egypt and also in Tunisia before was dictator. Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?

BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.  And I think that it would be--I would not refer to him as a dictator.

Lehrer has long viewed his job as not pushing his powerful guests too hard. "My part of journalism is to present what various people say," as he once put it . "I'm not in the judgment part of journalism." That's a good thing for Biden.

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Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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