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America’s missed opportunity in Egypt

There’s no reason to believe that the uprising will bring radical Islamists to power – so why isn’t

Hosni Mubarak's days are numbered as the president of Egypt, and possibly as a living human being. The 80 million people of Egypt are not going anywhere; the struggle for democracy and fight for a better life goes on. After Mubarak is gone, the world will have to deal with the reaction of thousands of protesters who were injured, killed, arrested, tortured on the street while the leaders of the international community were issuing empty, meaningless statements and taking no action except to support this ailing regime in its fight against its own people.

The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets since 25 January are not political activists or full-time dissidents. They are also not the Islamists who have long been portrayed by the media as Egypt's largest opposition and the only real threat to the regime. It was thought that any change in Egypt would automatically bring to power radical Islamists whose masterplan is believed to be the application of sharia (Islamic law) and the destruction of Israel. This is why the US government has always given unconditional support to the authoritarian regime of Mubarak and his party.

The protesters who took to the streets to challenge the country's brutal security forces did not risk their lives to apply shariaa or wipe Israel off the map. I should also point out that the protesters also had no interest in stoning adulterers to death. Their demands were for a job with a decent income, an end to the 30-year-long emergency rule, safe roads and public transportation, fair elections and a police force whose role is to protect rather than intimidate them.

Despite an endless number of international human rights reports condemning Egypt and giving the country a very poor ranking in the various global freedom and transparency indices, Joe Biden, the US vice-president, unashamedly refused to describe Mubarak as a dictator and said he should not step down . President Barack Obama himself described the Egyptian dictator as a "friend of the US" and a "force of stability in the region".

The Obama administration, especially Hillary Clinton, keeps using the word "reform" instead of "change" when commenting on the situation in Egypt. What the Americans fail to understand is that Egyptians are willing now to sacrifice their lives for change and don't want reform; they simply want Mubarak to step down and they want his regime to remove itself. Law and order will not be restored until this happens.

The problem is that international and domestic media reports about Egyptian politics have always been coated with a great deal of cynicism. The people of Egypt have for far too long been denied basic democratic rights based on dangerous misconceptions promoted by the regime itself. First, that free and fair elections would lead to a sweeping victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and hence would lead to instability in the region and a new threat to Israel. And that the consequences of democracy in Egypt would also involve the "ethnic cleansing" of the country's Coptic Christian minority and the introduction of stoning and and other barbaric punishments.

But let's take a look at the role of the main "religio-political" groups in the 25 January protest and following protests. Many Salafist groups have denounced the uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood was until the last minute reluctant to participate in the protest movement. Even the Coptic Church urged its followers not to participate in Tuesday's protests.

Nonetheless, it was still the country's biggest protest since the 18 January 1977 upheaval – despite the absence of Egypt's main religious groups and institutes. During the protests, it is worth noting, no one chanted "Death to adulterers" or "Down with Israel". There were no Qurans or crosses on display – instead, protesters were peacefully chanting "Freedom, freedom" and waving the Egyptian flag.

For far too long, people inside and outside of Egypt have turned a blind eye to the regime's human rights violations due to their fear of the country's Islamists and, in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The misconception that Islamists are waiting in line to seize power was based on the Brotherhood winning 88 seats (20 per cent) in the 2005 parliamentary elections. But many observers believe this number was carefully decided by the Mubarak regime itself to send a message to western superpowers about the supposed threat from Islamists – in order to resist the Bush administration's pressure to democratise the country further.

The number was big enough to scare everyone they wanted to scare, but still not big enough for the Brothers to drive any real change in Egyptian politics. Interestingly, the regime "allocated" no seats at all for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2010 elections, by which time US pressure – under Obama – had reduced.

It's true that Egypt has seen growing conservatism and even extremism during the past three decades, in what has been described as a soft Islamic revolution. However, this growing trend has found a fertile ground to grow in the regime's oppressive environment and systematic policies of impoverishing its people, such as its determined refusal to enforce a fair minimum wage despite a court ruling to that effect.

It seems, however, that the wave of Islamophobia, or in this case "Islamistphobia", that hit the world after the September 11 attacks drove many to turn a blind eye to their ideals of freedom, liberty and human rights, including President Obama, who has always raised the banner of change and liberty but has been a great deal softer with the 82-year-old Egyptian despot than his predecessor.

If Washington continues to support "reform" rather than "change" in Egypt, it gives way to Islamists to present themselves as the only saviour to the Egyptian people, and risks having a confrontational, radical Islamist regime and a populace full of bitterness towards a nation, the United States, that refused to support the struggle for basic human rights, and chose instead to support a dictator who committed countless crimes against his own people.