While most of President Obama’s speech last night focused on domestic issues, he also briefly touched on foreign policy matters. At one point, the president said that “what sets us apart must not just be our power — it must be the purpose behind it.” He cited the recent US-backing of the referendum that created the nation of South Sudan, and also praised the recent revolution in Tunisia, where he said that “the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” He concluded, “And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” His declaration was met by standing applause by Congress:
OBAMA: Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power – it must be the purpose behind it. In South Sudan – with our assistance – the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war. Thousands lined up before dawn. People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: “This was a battlefield for most of my life. Now we want to be free.”
We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
Obama’s praise for the Tunisian revolution and declaration that the United States “supports the democratic aspirations of all people” is particularly relevant in the face of the massive pro-democracy protest movement that has erupted in Egypt over the past week, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Egyptian police revolting against their British colonizers. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have taken part in these protests, and the Egyptian government has responded with a heavy-handed crackdown, banning protests by the demonstrators and warning that anyone who marches against the government will be arrested.
One nation that has been mostly silent during these demonstrations is the United States. This is particularly important given that the United States is a close economic, political, and military ally to the Egyptian government, which receives nearly $2 billion annually in aid from the United States. Given these facts, the United States has leverage over the Egyptian government and could exert pressure that would help hasten a transition to a more democratic Egypt.
The one major statement that U.S. government officials have made about the situation from Egypt came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Clinton said. “We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence.” Former IAEA director and Egyptian human rights activist Mohamed El-Baradei responded to Clinton’s comments during an appearance on CNN International this morning. He said he was “stunned” by Clinton’s words and said that Egypt’s “basis” for stability was on “29 years of martial law.” He called on the U.S. to champion “democracy, human rights, basic freedoms, all the stuff the U.N. is standing for”:
ELBARADEI: I was stunned to hear Secretary Clinton saying that the Egyptian government is stable. And I asked myself, at what price stability? Is it on the basis of 29 years of martial law? Is it on the basis of 30 years of [inaudible] regime? Is it on the basis of rigged elections? That is not stability, that is living on borrowed time. Stability is when you have a government elected on a free and fair basis. We have seen how elections have been rigged in Egypt. We have seen how people have been tortured. And when you see today almost over a 100,000 young people getting desperate going to the street asking for basic freedom. I expected to hear from Secretary Clinton, stuff like democracy, human rights, basic freedoms, all the stuff the U.N. is standing for.
Given Obama’s praise of the Tunisian revolution and his promise to support “the democratic aspirations of all people,” it is likely that Egypt’s pro-democracy protesters are looking for the United States to practice what it preaches.