Washington D.C. is experiencing its first real test to the idea of bipartisan “civility.” The results can be seen in American political leaders’ reactions to the Egyptian unrest that began last week. In the past, we have seen internecine gamesmanship between Democrats and Republicans over “Who lost Vietnam?” or “Who blundered into Iraq?” But on the topic of Egypt, there is restraint and a surprising amount of bipartisan concordance in the rhetoric of American political leaders.
Until last week, the international focus wasn’t on Egypt, but instead Tunisia, where the 23-year long rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali came to an abrupt end. Ben Ali’s corrupt rule was much reviled by his people. The Tunisian domestic political order had many similarities to President Hosni Mubarak’s now 30-year rule in Egypt. But Egypt’s geopolitical (Suez Canal) and diplomatic importance (the only Arab state to recognize Israel) has elevated the media attention given to the country. Additionally, Egypt is the second largest recipient of American military aid after Israel.
The Democratic White House administration has adhered to a cautionary tone predicated upon not superpowers, but Egyptians being proactive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially emphasized that Egyptian protestors and the government must show restraint and commit to nonviolence. As events in Egypt gained momentum in favor of the protestors, Secretary Clinton began advocating for an “orderly transition” of power in Egypt. The unspoken implication is that that Mubarak’s days are over as Egypt’s leader and that Mubarak himself has lost America’s unwavering support.
The White House’s cautious approach provides an opportunity for Republican leaders and GOP presidential hopefuls. Republicans could forcefully contrast themselves with Democrats by launching into platitudes about Democrats underselling the liberty and freedom that appears on the march in Egypt. This analysis is based upon a long history of Republicans attacking Democrats as being diplomatically weak, most recently seen in the Republican reactions to the abortive 2009 Iranian Green Revolution.
In 2009, Republican congressmen compared their minority status in the U.S. House to oppressed Iranian protesters and Republicans blasted the White House for not being more vocally supportive of Iranian protesters. However, thus far and with minor exceptions, Republicans have not criticized the White House. Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have thoroughly applauded the Democrats’ tone. Both Boehner and McConnell appeared on Sunday morning talk shows and explicitly supported the White House response.
The surprising concordance in political tone between Democrats and Republicans reflects the particulars of Egypt’s situation more so than any supposed tone of “civility.” Unlike the antagonistic Iranian theocrats, Egypt’s ruling elite are much more amenable to American diplomatic pressures. Also, the Egyptian domestic political situation during this unrest is less volatile. The Egyptian Army has shown a reluctance to attack protesters and the opposing Islamist party, Muslim Brotherhood, has openly endorsed the candidacy of a secular Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, to replace Mubarak.
The events of the last week contradict the possibility of either Tiananmen Square or the 1979 Iranian Revolution repeating itself in Egypt. In light of these positive Egyptian developments and because of the bipartisan American political consensus, the concordance of American political rhetoric appears not to be so unique or inspiring. The Egyptian crisis probably bought the idea of “civility” only an additional week in its American political lifetime.