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The intersecton between US principles and interests

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Photo by EPABy Camille Elhassani

With every step of the crisis in Egypt, US President Barack Obama has been cautious in his comments, walking the fine line between being on the right side of history and not appearing to dictate the outcome. In his comments after Mubarak stepped down, Obama reiterated the message that Egypt's future will be determined by Egyptians. "By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change.  But this is not the end of Egypt’s transition.  It’s a beginning," the president said.

But despite his comments on Friday, throughout the crisis, Obama left himself open to the charge that his administration has been inconsistent in its approach.

Two days after the first protests in Cairo, vice-president Joe Biden said he wouldn't refer to Mubarak as a dictator. Then Barack Obama took over the public face of the administration's response to the crisis, making frequent comments and not leaving the messaging to his foreign policy team.

A week after the demonstrations started, Obama came out to say that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and must begin now."  But the administration never said Mubarak should step down and at one point indicated that they'd support him staying on until September.

For all Obama's speeches and statements, it's unclear that the administration had much of an idea of what was going on in Cairo. As the world watched the announcement that Mubarak had stepped down, Obama was in a meeting. He was given a note with the news. Then he watched some of the reaction in Cairo on TV (although not on Al Jazeera English).

According to press secretary Robert Gibbs, the administration was as confused as the rest of the world on Thursday with the rumours that Mubarak was ready to leave. Gibbs said at Friday's daily press briefing: "The very same contacts that we have in Egypt are some of the very same contacts that many of you all had that seemed to tell everyone that a different speech might be what we would hear." Apparently the US government didn't have any better intelligence than the media.

The White House has spent the last 18 days trying to square US principles with US interests in the region. Officials often seemed quick to offer an opinion. Whenever the charge of inconsistency was levelled, the administration reminded us of Obama's speech in Cairo in 2009 championing democracy and modernity and secretary of state Hillary Clinton's comments several weeks ago in Doha in support of civil society building throughout the Arab world. But despite the rhetoric, the Obama administration cut funding for civil society development in Egypt in 2009.

The realisation of the desires of the people of Egypt was a moment that should have been more presidential for Obama. He made a speech or released a statement with every twist and turn in the process. He didn't let his foreign policy team lead so when there were nuances, it looked like waffling from the President. Then when Mubarak left and Obama had a chance to make an inspiring statement, the speech he delivered sounded a lot like what we'd already heard. And it didn't cement his role as a world leader during a crisis.

Even a reference in the speech to the ideals of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr wasn't enough. Obama said: "Egyptians have inspired us ... it was the moral force of nonviolence - not terrorism, not mindless killing - but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history towards justice once more."

Now the intersection between principles and interests has moved beyond the fierce urgency of now. The Obama administration will have to regroup and come up with a new policy towards Egypt as both nations wake up on Saturday with a whole new set of challenges.

Camille Elhassani is Al Jazeera English's Senior White House Producer.


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