Officials from both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations are scrambling to argue that they have aggressively pressured embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the issues of human rights and political reform. But a closer look at the statements made by U.S. officials helps explain the antipathy toward the United States that some protesters -- including potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, who blasted America's "failed policy" in Egypt -- have expressed.
From 2005 to 2008, Frank Ricciardone was the U.S. envoy in Cairo. Ricciardone, now the U.S. ambassador to Turkey following a recess appointment by Obama, was not confirmed by the Senate because many senators had lingering concerns about his tenure there. Those in the Bush administration who were pushing for a tougher line against Mubarak believed Ricciardone was too cozy with the regime and made too many excuses for Mubarak's authoritarian policies.
"President Mubarak is well known in the United States," Ricciardone said on March 12, 2006, to a group of students in Egypt participating in a model American Congress. "He is respected. If he had to run for office in the United States, my guess is he could win elections in the United States as a leader who is a giant on the world stage."
The Bush administration's effort to push Mubarak toward reform suffered widespread implementation problems, which went far beyond Ricciardone. But For Ricciardone's critics, statements he made in Egypt served to undermine the democracy push and helped lead to the current situation where the United States finds itself stuck today between a dictator and his people.
"Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy," former top National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams told The Cable.
Not all Bush administration officials agree with that assessment. "He's an outstanding and extremely dedicated Foreign Service officer who has served his country in some very delicate and dangerous postings," said Mitchell Reiss, who served at the State Department's director of policy planning under Bush.
But for critics like Abrams, Ricciardone was hesitant to directly criticize Mubarak, overly optimistic about the progress of reforms, and often drew an equivalence between Egypt's struggles with human rights and democracy and the U.S. political debates.
Four days after his remarks to students in Egypt about Mubarak being able to win a U.S. election, for example, Ricciardone sought to dispel any rumors that Mubarak was not welcome in Washington.
"President Mubarak is loved in the U.S. and we always welcome him and appreciate his advice and benefit from it. He is a figure of historic importance in the global arena, and for the U.S.," he said in an interview.
Al Ahram Weekly, which is owned by the government, featured a quote by Ricciardone on Feb. 9, 2006, where he claimed that Mubarak had made "great progress" toward democratic reforms.
"There were some shortfalls in the exercise of democracy that President Mubarak and the prime minister have recognized. These have made headlines around the world and sometimes these headlines were negative and obscured the larger reality I experience every day which is a very positive reality," he said.
In an interview with Egyptian media on March 16, 2006, that was posted on the U.S. embassy in Cairo's website, Ricciardone downplayed the idea that the Egyptian government persecuted Coptic Christians.
"Naturally, here in Egypt as in the U.S., there is freedom of speech, so it is possible for anyone to complain about any personal or social problem. If there is a problem, there are legal ways to deal with it, whether here or in the U.S.," Ricciardone said.
In a Feb. 26, 2007, interview with Lamees El-Hadidi of Egyptian Television Channel One, Ricciardone was asked what kind of pressure the U.S. government was placing on Mubarak to enact human rights and political reform. He said there was none.
"I don't think there's any kind of pressure. There's an exchange of ideas and advice between friends within an atmosphere of constant dialogue, so I don't think there's any kind of pressure," Ricciardone said.
Later in the same interview, Ricciardone was asked about the 2005 State Department report on human rights, which said that protections in Egypt were weak. He responded that he was "optimistic" about reforms in Egypt and referenced problems in the United States, by way of comparison.
"I think there's a deeply-rooted and strong civil society here (in Egypt)," he responded. "I'm optimistic despite all the shortcomings and problems. Some problems have taken place in the U.S., but what's important is that every day we seek to improve ourselves."
As recently as February 2008, Ricciardone praised the level of political openness in Egypt in an interview with Egypt's Dream TV. "Nowadays, in Egypt there is freedom of expression and that's how it should be," he said.