(CNSNews.com) – At Monday’s foreign policy debate, President Obama says his administration “stood on the side of democracy” when Arabs rose up against their dictatorial rulers last year, but at the time he was criticized for not doing so sooner.
“One thing I think Americans should be proud of, when Tunisians began to protest, this nation – me, my administration – stood with them earlier than just about any country,” Obama said. “In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy, in Libya we stood on the side of the people.”
Asked by debate moderator Bob Schieffer whether he regretted not waiting “a while” before urging former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign – as some in his administration thought perhaps he should have done – Obama replied, “No, I don’t, because I think that America has to stand with democracy.”
Asked by Schieffer whether he would have “stuck by Mubarak,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said, “No.” In fact, the Republican presidential nominee said he supports Obama's "action there" in Egypt. But Romney did voice regret that the U.S. did not act sooner to urge governments in the region to reform.
“I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president’s term and even further back than that, that we’d have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world, and that we would have worked more aggressively with our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government, such that it didn’t explode in the way that it did,” he said.
“But once it exploded, I felt the same as the president did, which is these freedom voices and the streets of Egypt, where the people who were speaking of our principles and the President Mubarak had done things which were unimaginable and the idea of him crushing his people was not something that we could possibly support.”
Despite Obama’s statements about having stood with the people of Tunisia and Egypt, in both cases the administration reacted warily when citizens took to the streets to demand political change from long-ruling autocrats.
In Tunisia, the protests erupted on December 17, 2010 and continued for 28 days – with at least 300 deaths and 700 injuries reported – before President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile on January 14, 2011.
As late as three days before he left the country, the Obama administration was unwilling to side with the protestors.
“We are not taking sides, but we are saying we hope that there can be a peaceful resolution,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an Al Arabiya interview in the United Arab Emirates on January 11. “And I hope that the Tunisian government can bring that about.”
Only after Ben Ali had fled did Obama in a Jan. 14, 2011 statement “applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” and call on the authorities “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.”
‘Government is stable’
In Egypt, too, the administration responded guardedly when protestors took to the streets of Cairo that same month calling on Mubarak to stand down.
When Egypt’s revolt began on January 25, with large protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Clinton urged restraint from “all parties,” and stopped short of criticizing the Mubarak regime.
“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,” she said during a joint media appearance in Washington with her Spanish counterpart.
The following day Clinton encouraged the government to “implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” but without specifically calling for free elections.
On January 27 the Working Group on Egypt, a U.S. initiative involving experts from the Carnegie Endowment and Brookings Institution among others, urged the administration to suspend economic and military aid until Mubarak agreed to call free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
“[V]ictories for human rights and democracy should not merely be celebrated after they happen, when it is easy for the U.S. government to speak its mind; they must be championed before they happen,” it said in a statement.
On January 30, Clinton spoke about the need for an “orderly transition” in Egypt, but did not directly call on Mubarak to leave.
On January 31, the daily White House press briefing was dominated by the situation in Egypt, with then spokesman Robert Gibbs saying the Egyptian people had legitimate grievances,
but adding “we’re not picking between those on the street and those in the government.”
Asked whether the administration believed Mubarak should not run again in elections then scheduled for September 2011, Gibbs replied, “the United States government does not determine who’s on the ballot. The question is whether or not those elections are going to be free and fair.”
To a question about whether Mubarak should leave, Gibbs said, “That is not for our government to determine. That is for the people of Egypt to determine.”
On February 1, Mubarak declared that he would not stand for another term when his current one ended. Hours later, in his first public reaction to the week-long political turmoil in Egypt, Obama said he had spoken to the Egyptian leader by phone after the announcement, and had told him that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and the change must begin now.” Obama also stopped short of calling directly for Mubarak to step down immediately, as demanded by many protestors and opposition figures in Egypt.
On February 6, Clinton said it was “up to the Egyptians” to make decisions about how to move ahead.
On February 10, Mubarak said on national television that he would stay in office until the following September, while delegating some powers to a newly-appointed vice-president.
Obama in response offered his strongest criticism yet of Mubarak, but even then he stopped short of calling on the Egyptian to leave.
Instead, in a cautiously worded statement that did not make a single direct reference to the Egyptian president, Obama urged Egypt’s government “to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek.”
On February 11, Mubarak resigned.