Winds of Change in the Mainstream Media?

While Hosni Mubarak’s thirty years in power appears to be coming to an end, another, quieter change appears to be overcoming U.S. mainstream media. Outlets such as CNN and MSNBC have been asking pointed questions about the U.S.’s tangled Middle East policy.

On January 28th, MSNBC’s Richard Engel and Rachel Maddow had a surprisingly frank discussion about the U.S. role in backing Mubarak. Engel told Maddow that “many Egyptians see the U.S. having stood solidly by President Mubarak while the government grew more and more corrupt.” Engel held up to the camera a teargas canister which had been fired at protesters and read the writing on the side:

‘Made in the USA by Combined Tactical Systems from Jamestown, Pennsylvania.’ And [the protesters] say this is the kind of support that the United States has been giving to the Egyptian government.

This public questioning of U.S. foreign policy for the past thirty years occurred not on Al Jazeera (which continues to have some of the best coverage out of Cairo) or on liberal blogs, but as part of a major network’s programming.

The shift in tone from the U.S. news media continued through the weekend. On Monday, CNN’s John King asked Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) how the Congressman’s support of Hosni Mubarak fit in with the U.S.’s interest in promoting democracy in the Middle East.

King started by questioning McCotter’s representation of the protesters as subversive elements [see the transcript here].

KING: Your initial statement as the crisis unfolded from Friday, said, “Right now freedoms radicalized enemies are subverting Egypt and our other allies.”

We have correspondents who have been out in the streets in these demonstrations, and they say, yes, there are some members of the Muslim Brotherhood there, but by and large it is middle class Egyptians, young and old, who are frustrated with their government. Who have had no political rights. The elections have been a sham. They want Mubarak to go. What’s wrong with that?

MCCOTTER: Well, it’s the same thing we saw in 1979 with the Shah, where you had a very broad-based popular coalition that was subverted by the Khomeinis of the world, and the radical Islamic factions within there. So what you have to do is find a way to separate the movement of the young people and of the middle class and others-separate them from the radical elements within the Muslim Brotherhood, who have not renounced the goal of Sharia law on a global basis, or the return of the Caliphate, which would be a disastrous not only for the Egyptian people but for the peace process in the Middle East, the Suez Canal and international commerce, and the interest of the United States.

King went on to press McCotter on the U.S.’s inconsistent record of promoting democracy:

KING: President Bush pushed for elections in the Palestinian Territories, as you know, and Hamas won those elections. Some said it was a big mistake on the president’s part, President Bush’s part to do that, when they weren’t ready. And Hamas won that election. An others have said, you know what, not it’s not. It’s not a mistake. The United States should stand for democracy, let the people have their will and Hamas will prove it can either deliver services or it can’t. Again, why not do the same in Egypt? If somebody is maybe not friendly to the United States in the first round, we take our chances the second round.

MCCOTTER: Because if the individuals come in, as we saw in Iran, as we could see with the potential takeover from the Muslim Brotherhood, not only is it not in the best interest of the United States, it is not in the best interest of the people of Egypt, any more than it was in the best interest of the people of Iran.

King again challenged  McCotter’s talking point that the Muslim Brotherhood would take over a future government, saying, “Most of our people who have been there for a long time, and have reported on the region, said maybe they would get 25 or 30 percent.”

The major network news outlets are way behind in reporting on the tangled U.S. Middle East policy which, thirty years after the Camp David Accords, continues to hinge on backing authoritarian Arab governments and unconditionally defending Israel against accusations of human rights abuses. But the scenes of Egyptian security services attacking protesters with U.S.-supplied equipment and the administration’s unwillingness to openly take sides against Mubarak is clearly making many Americans take note and ask questions.

That frustration, along with the questioning of U.S. policy, has long been kept under a lid by those who warn that changes of government in U.S.-aligned Arab states would bring the rise of radical Islamists who would work against U.S. and Israeli interests. The protesters on the streets of Egypt don’t look like radicals to U.S. viewers. A-list talking heads are starting to ask real questions about the assumptions and strategies used to justify U.S. support for rulers like Hosni Mubarak.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. This is a very interesting point, and I’m glad you brought it up. Our policies and attitudes are quite hypocritical, no doubt about it. At the same time, those who fear the eventual ascendance of radical Islam are quite right about the dangers it would pose.

    The problem, which no one wants to talk about, is Israel. Radical Islamist regimes may think we’re hopelessly decadent infidels, but they would trade with us and enter into other mutually beneficial arrangements, were we not supporting Israel and the regional autocrats who tolerate Israeli policies in Palestine. If we started looking after purely American interests in the Middle East, which really amount only to 1)the freedom to purchase oil and 2) the freedom to send shipping through the Suez Canal, we would have no problems with any of the regimes out there, including those of a radical Islamist persuasion.

    The interests of the American people have been and are being sacrificed on the altar of a greater Israel. We have been shooting ourselves in the foot repeatedly in order to please those who murdered our sailors on the Liberty. Future generations will look back on this and wonder why we allowed such a bizarre and tragic state of affairs to arise — and to continue.

  2. RE: “Engel held up to the camera a teargas canister which had been fired at protesters and read the writing on the side:‘Made in the USA by Combined Tactical Systems from Jamestown, Pennsylvania.’”

    FROM MONDOWEISS, 01/28/11:

    …Adalah-NY recently posted on American-made tear gas made by Combined Tactical Systems (CTS), a part of Combined Systems Inc., being shot at protesters across the West Bank. Now this theme is at last being echoed in the mainstream press, about Egypt and the same US tear gas company.
    From the Telegraph:

    A stark contrast, however, to the US’s calls for calm has come from protesters angry at the fact that the tear gas canisters being fired at them by security forces seem to be made in America – via AFP: “Egyptians staging anti-government protests on
    Friday vented anger at the fact that the tear gas security forces are firing at them is US-manufactured, probably part of a massive military aid package. “‘The American taxpayer should know how their money is being spent,’ shouted one young male protester who declined to give his name, brandishing a spent tear gas canister marked ‘Made in USA.’
    “Dozens of the canisters made by Combined Tactical Systems in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, were fired at crowds on one Cairo street on Friday, littering the road surface along with rubble and spent shotgun cartridges. “Many protesters have been injured through tear gas inhalation and by being hit by the canisters themselves, with the security forces sometimes firing them straight at demonstrators.”



  3. I like the way Thaddeus McCotter says (3min10):

    “History teaches us that over a period of time while popular movements may be successful in deposing a government that they do not like, the power vacuum that ensues is filled by the most organized and radicalized parties within that take the country.

    – the vast majority of people were not jacobins in France
    – the vast majority of Russians were not bolsheviks
    – the vast majority of people were not Khomeynian”


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