What is Obama’s strategy in Egypt?

The president is keen to avoid “meddling”, but US interests go far wider than the next Egyptian lead

Regime change: as unpredictable as it is uncertain. And as White House officials discuss the options for a post-Mubarak regime, questions are being raised over President Obama's strategy and the speed of his response.

This isn't just a question of making policy on the hoof as fast-moving events in Egypt leave the administration running to catch up. It's a question of values: of intervention, of autonomy, of the best way of fostering democracy and stability in the Middle East.

There's been much trawling through the principles that President Obama outlined in his Cairo speech in 2009, when he reached out a hand to the Muslim world. Back then, the chief lesson Obama had learned from Iraq was that too much US interference would prove supremely counterproductive – though he was also keen to champion his core values, warning dictators that "suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away". In June that same year, Obama resisted pressure to back protesters in Iran after its disputed presidential elections, saying it would not be productive to be "seen as meddling".

All this was a deliberate reversal of the Bush freedom agenda of trying to spread US-style democracy throughout the region. Repression and tyranny, Bush believed, bred radicalism and instability. The answer lay in free elections. And it was his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who put all this in context, in her Cairo speech in 2005. Sixty years of realism in US foreign policy, she argued, had created neither democracy nor stability. "Now we are taking a different course," she said. "We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Democracy, however, won't always give you the results you want. As Caroline Glick put it in the Jerusalem Post: "Bush's belief was based on a narcissistic view of western values as universal."

In reality, given the choice, the Palestinians voted Hamas into power. Lebanon ended up with Hezbollah. Iraq – well, let's not go into Iraq. And an insight about where Egypt might be heading was revealed in a Pew survey last October which showed that 59 per cent of Egyptians supported Islamists, half backed Hamas and some 20 per cent supported al-Qaeda.

Hence the dilemma. There will be regime change in Egypt, no matter what, and the White House is pledged to "let the Egyptian people decide" what happens next.

There's no shortage of advice for the White House. Michael Rubin, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that if the US doesn't find a way to empower secular leaders in the region "we will create a vacuum that the Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood will fill, which, given the scars of the Iranian Revolution, remains our biggest fear", And, he added:

The irony is that if Condi Rice and the Bush administration hadn't walked away from the "Arab spring" in 2005 before it had a chance to bloom, we would have a lot more leverage right now to channel these popular protests.

In the absence of any obvious liberal oppostion in Cairo, the US is weighing its options. Joe Biden has been talking to his new Egyptian counterpart, Omar Suleiman, about the transition. Meanwhile, the US Senate has just approved John McCain and John Kerry's call for Hosni Mubarak to transfer power immediately to an inclusive caretaker government, followed by moves towards free and fair elections later this year.

It is pushing Obama far futher towards that interventionist strategy he was so keen to avoid. But although he has been criticised for being late in the game – and by NBC's Andrea Mitchell of being "lumbering . . . passive and reactive" – American interests go far wider than the next Egyptian leader. There's the small matter of Middle East stability to consider.

In the long game of diplomacy, it's surely better to act with intelligence and subtlety than conduct policy through a giant megaphone.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.