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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT