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.