Despite the images on US television, it has been a quiet weekend for us here in Cairo. I have been thinking a lot about the images CNN shows, and they are of course at one level real and important. And as US embassies and other symbols of American influence are the scenes of protests and violence, the images take on an added intensity. It did remind me that Wolf Blitzer’s regular show is called “The Situation Room,” and he is always breathless no matter what he is reporting on. (I have always thought he would have made a fine weatherman). Do you remember when the situation room was reserved for the President when he met with his national security advisors when there was a real global crisis?
The Morsi government has come under criticism from the West for its response to the embassy protests here. Commentators have said that he and his government stressed the negative aspects of the film rather than the need to protect US interests. I find the prevalence of this reaction to be incredibly myopic. Morsi is building domestic support for his presidency, and whether one believes in free speech or not, he had to outright condemn the idiocy of this film. He and others from the Muslim Brotherhood quickly condemned the violence and as of tonight have secured the Embassy and the surrounding streets. Seems like a job pretty well done to me, though perhaps not according to the timeline we would have preferred.
I was pretty surprised at Obama’s statement that Egypt is not an ally. And I was not surprised that those around him had to quickly retract this statement to stress that indeed we were partners. This statement undermined Morsi domestically at a time when this was a very dangerous thing to do. Obama does not usually make mistakes like this, but the heat of the campaign season seems to have gotten the best of him on here.
It is instructive to reflect back on Obama’s soaring speech that he gave here in Cairo June of 2009, a speech I was moved by at the time for its idealism and vision. It was also the first reading that I assigned to my class here. In the speech, Obama said:
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
(Do read the whole speech at the link above, it is one of his best.)
I guess sometimes you need to be careful about what you ask for. Despite widespread disagreement about politics here, most agree that the last elections in Egypt were fair and democratic.
So as a calm descending on Cairo while the US withdraws non-essential personnel from Sudan and Tunisia, I suspect that these protests that were ignited by this offensive movie (it is still blocked here so I have not seen it) have and will morph into a more general expression of opposition to the US for its legacy of support for repressive regimes across the region and of frustration for the widespread hardship that life in this region brings to so many. For a nuanced and balanced discussion of this, I encourage you to delete CNN from your favorites and to add AlJazeera, and this discussion of the recent events in the region.
All seasons pass, don’t they? I will watch with great curiosity as the Arab Spring gives way to summer, fall and winter. To quote John Barlow from Weather Report Suite , who wrote many songs for the Grateful Dead:
Winter rain, tell me why.
Summers fade and roses die.
The answer came; the wind and rain.