What a beautiful day it is for freedom! So far, the Egyptian people have given us a wonderful illustration of a how a peaceful revolution can be undertaken.
This revolution is remarkable for several reasons; foremost is the fact it was a nonviolent revolution. Many Americans do not fully appreciate the courage the demonstrators had shown by coming out to Tahrir Square demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak had created one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East. I was recently told by a source close to U.S. intelligence that Egypt’s security services are among the best in the world, and that even American diplomats are warned about their deep, invasive reach. And dissidents of the Mubarak regime have traditionally paid a heavy price for dissent, including torture.
Take for example Ayman Nour. Nour ran against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election. Nour and five other presidential candidates pulled in just a tiny percent of the vote against Mubarak. But Nour had the unfortunate luck of being the biggest vote getter of Mubarak’s opponents, garnering 7 percent, according to the government count.
Soon after the election, Mubarak had Nour arrested on trumped-up charges. In 2005 he was sentenced to five years in a sordid Egyptian prison. He was only released in 2009.
This outrageous human rights violation against Nour was emblematic of a repressive regime. The U.S. response to Nour’s plight was also emblematic of the long relationship between the United States and Egypt.
The United States did little to help Nour or criticize Mubarak for this offense and many others. The United States ignored these transgressions because it considered Egypt a strong ally, especially in the war on terror. We, in turn, turned a blind eye to his atrocities.
The result of such callousness is usually never good for the tyrant we back or for the long-term interests of the United States. Within Egypt, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood flourished (interestingly with Mubarak’s acceptance). During the recent Cairo demonstrations, we saw the anger and frustration of ordinary Egyptians toward the United States and our policies.
The beginnings of the Egyptian crisis go back a long time and culpability lands at the feet of both Republican and Democratic administrations.
During the Bush years, the United States had a real chance to encourage and prod Mubarak to initiate reforms, limit corruption, and lay the groundwork for a democratic process there. But George Bush balked.
In fact, we wholeheartedly embraced the Mubarak regime at the very same time we were launching massive war offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan with the ostensible purpose of bringing democracy to these nations! Sounds hypocritical doesn’t it?
Early in his administration, President Obama promised in two key policy speeches, first in Istanbul then in Cairo, that he would lead a reform effort in the Middle East. Since then, Obama has sharply criticized our longtime democratic ally Israel, but otherwise has made little substantive policy changes to help the oppressed throughout the region.
We saw his “speech without a policy” approach unravel throughout the Egyptian crisis. As the first waves of protests grabbed world attention, the U.S. administration reiterated its staunch support for Mubarak and demanded “stability” be kept. Then, suddenly, the Obama administration flipped, demanding that Mubarak institute immediate reforms. And, in the past few days, the White House flipped again, wavering on calls for Mubarak to leave.
The Obama policy was clearly inept and poorly executed. Instead, Obama should have kept U.S. policy statements to a minimum as we allowed the Egyptian people to engage in self-determination, at the same time acting behind the scenes to encourage Mubarak and the military to engage in an orderly transition to more political freedoms.
Don’t get me wrong. Creating an instant democracy in Egypt or any country with little history of it is extremely dangerous.
America should promote and support the democratic process by encouraging nations to develop economic prosperity for all their people. A prosperous, educated public in almost any society is a strong bulwark against authoritarianism and war.
I have heard it said that “U.S. interests” alone should have been supreme in our Egypt policy. Since Mubarak was an ally in the war on terror, supportive of the peace with Israel, and an opponent of Islamic extremism, we should have backed him no matter what, some argued. But when our policies and support for such dictators callously disregard their oppression and human rights violations, we become, de facto accomplices to these autocrats.
We also become de facto enemies of the people they oppress.
President Kennedy remarked in his first inaugural that we must encourage dictators, even those allied to us, to move toward freedom. As Kennedy said, those who rode the back of the tiger to gain power often ended up inside the tiger.
Invariably, vicious dictators are overthrown, and the new regimes that replace them are far more hostile to American interests. We need only look at Iran to see how such a policy can ultimately harm long-term U.S. interests.
For those who love freedom, we saw a powerful display of its power in Egypt. I think this episode reaffirms our belief that America must always remain true to itself and keep lit its beacon of freedom and self-determination for all peoples.
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