WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s push for democratic reforms in Egypt has faced resistance from its longtime leader, in part because President Hosni Mubarak believes Washington’s past pressure for change has caused chaos in the Middle East, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on Friday as anti-government protests rocked Egypt for a fourth day, said it was “absolutely vital” for Cairo to embrace political and social change as the United States has been pushing for years.
U.S. diplomatic cables posted on Friday by WikiLeaks show Obama has guided the United States to warmer ties with Egypt by avoiding the public “name and shame” tactics of his predecessor George W. Bush while urging political reforms in private.
But they also show U.S. pressure is viewed skeptically by Mubarak, who believes ill-advised U.S. pushes for reform in the Middle East have produced colossal mistakes, from the ouster of the Shah of Iran to the election of Hamas Islamists in Gaza.
“We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world,” the U.S. embassy in Cairo told Clinton in a cable before Mubarak’s visit to Washington in May 2009.
“He can harken back to the Shah of Iran: the U.S. encouraged him to accept reforms, only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists. Wherever he has seen these U.S. efforts, he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that ensued.”
The cables were part of some 250,000 U.S. State Department documents reportedly obtained by WikiLeaks, a website that aims to expose governments and corporations through the leaking of information not previously made public.
The cables indicate the U.S.-Egypt relationship soured under President Bush. Mubarak viewed the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a mistake that ultimately boosted the influence and power of Iran, Egypt’s main Middle East rival.
“Mubarak viewed President Bush ... as naive, controlled by subordinates and totally unprepared for dealing with post-Saddam Iraq, especially the rise of Iran,” the May 2009 cable to Clinton noted.
The Egyptian leader believed Iraq needed a tough and strong but fair military officer as its leader.
“This telling observation, we believe, describes Mubarak’s own view of himself,” the cable said.
The cables depict improving ties as Obama moved away from the Bush administration’s public criticism.
Obama’s overtures, and his speech to the Islamic world from Cairo in 2009, further helped to improve ties, even as his administration continued to press Mubarak’s government for greater openness and an end to rights abuses.
“We continue to promote democratic reform in Egypt, including the expansion of political freedom and pluralism, and respect for human rights,” the U.S. embassy cabled FBI Director Robert Mueller ahead of a visit to Cairo in February 2010.
It said Washington was pressing Cairo to lift its state of emergency, in place almost continuously since 1967, and replace it with a counterterrorism law that would protect civil liberties.
The government of Egypt “remains skeptical of our role in democracy promotion, complaining that any efforts to open up will result in empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently holds 86 seats -- as independents -- in Egypt’s 454-seat parliament,” the cable said.
The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s largest opposition group and favors a return to Islamic rules, away from the secularism of the Mubarak government. Its members run as independents to skirt restrictions barring religious parties.
Editing by John O'Callaghan