Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama missed out on Arab Spring

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
July 4, 2013 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy clash with riot police during the swearing in ceremony of Adly Mansour as interim president in Cairo on Thursday, July 4. Egypt's military deposed Morsy, the country's first democratically elected president, the country's top general announced Wednesday. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/04/middleeast/gallery/egypt-after-coup/index.html'>View photos of Egypt after the coup.</a> Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy clash with riot police during the swearing in ceremony of Adly Mansour as interim president in Cairo on Thursday, July 4. Egypt's military deposed Morsy, the country's first democratically elected president, the country's top general announced Wednesday. View photos of Egypt after the coup.
HIDE CAPTION
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Photos: Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Photos: Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
Protests in Egypt
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: The Arab uprisings gave the U.S. a historic chance to side with freedom
  • Ghitis: Incredibly, the Obama administration's response has been marked by timidity
  • She says in pursuit of stability, the U.S. held its tongue as Egypt's leader broke his words
  • Ghitis: U.S. should side more with those who share its ideals and help them in revolutions

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- The 2011 Arab uprisings presented the United States with a historic opportunity to take a clear stand on the side of freedom and democracy and strengthen its own standing in the process. Incredibly, the Obama administration has blundered and stumbled, with a response marked by timidity and caution.

As a result, America appears weaker, less influential and less trusted, while the Arab Middle East continues to seethe with instability and violence.

Today, as the Egyptian state shudders, with millions taking to the streets infuriated with a government that is taking the country down a path they do not trust, and as Syrians continue to slaughter each other, with death toll approaching 100,000, there is no side in the conflicts that feels warmly toward America.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The most astonishing part is that the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa were launched by young, progressive idealists, whose objective was to reshape their countries by overthrowing entrenched dictators and bringing pluralism and democracy.

The DNA of the revolution made it a natural for American support.

Granted, the uprisings also targeted strong American allies, such as Egypt's now-deposed president, Hosni Mubarak. But once the dictator fell, America should have made a much stronger case for the fundamental principles of liberal democracy.

It is extraordinary this is happening under Obama, the leader who took the dramatic step of traveling to Cairo just months into his first term and delivering a landmark speech that vowed to end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between Americans and Muslims, and affirmed his belief that all people "yearn for certain things," including freedom, democracy, and genuine justice.

Morsy overthrown by Egypt's military
Egypt begins post-Morsy era
Pro-Morsy crowd: Down with military rule

When the people took the reins of history into their own hands, Obama's poetry crashed into geopolitical realities, not to mention domestic political considerations.

The choices, in fairness, were not easy. But Obama could have done much better.

Coup worsens Obama's Egypt policy headache

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, a group with a deeply anti-Western, anti-American ideology, won the elections. Washington was right in trying to work with a government that had been elected by the Egyptian people. But it went too far, ignoring the fundamental principles of democracy that America should have kept at the forefront of the agenda.

Washington had to work with Cairo -- and hence, with the government of President Mohammed Morsy -- but it didn't have to keep as quiet as it did when Morsy and his supporters started pushing away from democratic principles, undermining freedoms and laying the groundwork for a state that would change the character of the country. The pan-Islamist vision of the Brotherhood is deeply offensive to supporters of equality for women, legal protections for minorities, free media, and respect for the views of the opposition.

Instead, in pursuit of stability, the U.S. held its tongue. Occasionally, American officials spoke out, as when the ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, told a small group in Alexandria that "democracy needs a healthy and active civil society."

But when the government went after that same civil society, arresting and then convicting 43 members of nongovernmental organizations -- including 16 Americans -- and sentencing them to prison terms on sham charges, the U.S. kept its voice low, to the dismay of its friends.

The Obama administration has been so timid, so eager to stay out of the fray, that a few weeks before the verdict against the pro-democracy activists, Secretary of State John Kerry passed up the opportunity to take a stand for the workers, and for democracy, by quietly waiving the human rights preconditions of U.S. aid to Egypt and thus allowing $1.3 billion in aid to go forward.

There were better ways to play that hand. America threw away its aces.

In Syria, the U.S. passed up for too long the opportunity to support the most liberal of rebels fighting against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, allowing extremist radicals to dominate the opposition. Now the choices are far more difficult, and America's standing is in tatters with the people who should have been its natural allies.

The oversimplified equation says the country has to choose between its ideals and its interests. But in the case of the Arab uprisings, America's ideals and interests overlap. If Washington stood more convincingly with those who share its ideals, it would strengthen them within their revolutions. It would help them to victory, and then America would become stronger, having real friends in power in the post-revolutionary Middle East.

It's not too late for a course correction.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT