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Protests in Egypt: the real reason for Obama's two-handed game

Commentators have castigated the Obama administration for not demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and the institution of democratic elections. Yet this 'passivity' may not be a function of support for Mubarak’s dictatorship but rather a desire to retain the Egyptian military as a reliable partner throughout rapidly changing political circumstances.

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Every human soul has the right to freedom of expression, an economic livelihood, and security from physical abuse – rights that Egypt has denied her people for too long. Unprecedented mass protests in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez over the past week provide room for optimism, yet commentators should not force Egypt to be a living test case for academic theory or democratic activism. It’s time to take stock of what we might reasonably expect in Egypt and what we should not.

There is no doubt that the demonstrations were – and continue to be – a truly remarkable event. Throughout Egyptian history, the major drivers of political change have not been shopkeepers, laborers, or middle-class professionals but imperial personalities, Western powers, and military rulers.

History of repression

In the early 19th century, it was the Albanian-born Ottoman governor, Muhammad Ali, who secured Egypt effective autonomy from Istanbul and declared himself Khedive. For another century, the only effective challenge to the power of his successors came from Europe, which assumed control over the country’s finances, established a parallel system of law for foreigners, and banned the use of the kourbash (a whip made of hippopotamus hide) on seasonal laborers conscripted to dig mud from irrigation canals with their bare hands. In July 1952, a group of mid-level military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser orchestrated a successful, top-down coup with little popular support. As repression, successive economic crises, and an unpopular peace treaty with Israel tarnished the regime, citizens never took to the streets en masse, held in check by massive state patronage and a heavy-handed state security apparatus.

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