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For years Mubarak scared the West by suggesting that if he goes then the Brotherhood is next. That fear of the unknown led Western leaders to sacrifice freedom for stability in the Middle East without ever really achieving either. 

Yet there is no reason the balance cannot be tilted in favour of progressives in Egypt, particularly as the Brotherhood's recent trajectory has set it against popular sentiment. Competing against the emerging sophistication of internet-based movements which appeal to the young such as the "April 6 Youth Movement", the Brotherhood has been reverting its focus to cultural and moral conservatism in recent years. That much was confirmed by the appointment of the regressive Muhammad Badi as leader last year, whose austere message has failed to resonate with large sections of Egyptian society, including women, the young, and the burgeoning labour movement. 

Rather than capitalise on the Brotherhood's current inertia, Obama's light-touch diplomacy strengthened the Islamist movement. At best, the strongest words offered by the White House at the height of the protests were that Mubarak should prepare for a transition of power, a prospect deeply unacceptable to the protesters. 

Obama's special envoy, Frank Wisner, further alienated the protesters. "I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical — it's his chance to write his own legacy," he said. Hillary Clinton and the White House distanced themselves from his comments, but their policies mean the prospect of an Islamist takeover risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Protesters are angry that they were not more vigorously supported. 

Ahmad Wajdi, a 29-year-old financial analyst, stopped me with an ominous message one morning as I entered the square. "It is commonly believed on the street now that America is propping [Mubarak] up. So long as he remains in power Egypt will remain benign. If America backs [Mubarak] in a way that is too obvious, these streets will burn!" 

Protesters believe Obama supported Mubarak until the last minute, thereby alienating the constituency in whose defence he claims to act: Egypt's progressive and secular youth, women, and workers. During his Cairo speech in 2009 Obama only spoke of democracy with timid reference to the Iraq War, falling short of criticising Mubarak or the Middle East's other autocracies. 

Contrast that with Condoleezza Rice's 2005  address at the American University of Cairo: "Here in the Middle East, the long hopeful process of democratic change is now beginning to unfold. Millions of people are demanding freedom for themselves and democracy for their countries...We are all concerned for the future of Egypt's reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy — men and women — are not free from violence. The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees — and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice. The Egyptian government must fulfil the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose."

The White House lost its chance to send a clear and unambiguous message to the Egyptian youth who will now reshape their country's future. While Mubarak clung to power, Abdul-Rahman Hussain, who is 23, told me in the square, "Don't repeat the stupid crime that you did with Iran. Don't oppose the people's will. You will lose us, and we don't want you to lose us." 

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