Image Credit: Illustration: Guillermo Munro/©Gulf News

Over the weekend, American newspapers reported that US President Barack Obama was displeased with the quality of the intelligence he received in the run-up to the Egyptian uprising.

Considering that many of the demonstrators themselves seem surprised by the events of the last two weeks it seems fair to ask what, exactly, Obama was hoping to have heard? And, more importantly, what would he have done with that knowledge had it been available?

The US has been urging reform in Cairo in a half-hearted, mostly pro forma, manner for decades. For just as many years Egypt has brushed those concerns aside.

Viewed from that angle it should not be so surprising that throughout these last two weeks Obama and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have seemed to mirror each other in their slow, inadequate and uncomprehending responses to the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Washington's conventional wisdom of the moment is that regarding Egypt, Obama is constantly a day or so behind where he ought to be (though with America's embrace over the weekend of Vice-President Omar Sulaiman — a surprising agent of change if ever there were one — it can be argued that he has now fallen a lot further behind).

Meanwhile, in Cairo, the current regime seems unable to understand that no Egyptian ruler has faced a movement this broad-based and this powerful since the nationalist uprising against the British in 1919.

Mubarak may be correct in claiming that Egypt's silent majority still supports him, but that is probably true of the apolitical masses in almost any country. Regime change is never initiated by the politically inert.


For Mubarak himself, the most painful aspect of the last two weeks has to have been watching his legacy seep away day-by-day.

Pushed into a corner he has offered the crowds an increasingly long list of reforms: the repeal of anti-democratic amendments shoe-horned into the constitution in 2005, a purge of the more spectacularly corrupt members of the ruling National Democratic Party's leadership, a pledge that he will not stand for re-election nor will he seek to pass the presidency on to his son.

Had he made these promises a month ago many of the people now calling for his resignation would have hailed the announcement as an act of statesmanship. His reforms might have been seen as an attempt to better his legacy by serving as a catalyst for change in the twilight of his rule.

But that was a month ago. Today the same reforms feel pressed and insincere. The impression is that of a man who wants to buy time, not promote reform.

It is almost as unfortunate that Obama, too, has begun to sound like someone whose priorities are misplaced.

The debate surrounding Egypt has laid bare the fact that America remains haunted by its failures 32 years ago in Iran; in no small part because the country still cannot agree on what, exactly, those failures were.

Did Washington embrace the Shah too tightly, and for too long? Or did it fail to give him the support he needed and deserved? Should it have reached out to Iran's opposition earlier? Or not even in the limited ways that it did? Even today these questions can provoke heated debate.

Combine that with the post-9/11 paranoia that often drives American discussions about the Middle East and Islam and the result is a familiar conundrum: watching events in Egypt and the wider region America's head (security) finds itself at odds with its heart (democracy).

Long-term thinking is always difficult in the heat of a crisis, but that is what the situation requires today of both Mubarak and Obama.

Mubarak can hope that history remembers his shepherding of Egypt back into the Arab fold, rather than the sclerotic and increasing oppressive rule of his later years.

Of course, Mubarak can do this only if he first accepts that his time has passed.

For his part, Obama can become the champion of democracy America's president ought to be by breaking with the hypocrisies of Washington's past. The US cannot — and should not — pick Egypt's next leader, but it should do everything in its power to ensure that the Egyptian people get a real chance to do so.

Obama can do these things only if he understands that the Middle East will move forward with or without him, and that for America's head and heart alike ‘with' is by far the better outcome. 

Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for ABC News, CNN and Fox since the 1980s.