Once again, the U.S. has backed the "bad guy."
A popular uprising is under way in Egypt, and America seems to be behind the eight ball, again.
An Egyptian friend reminds me that he is 49 years of age, and Hosni Mubarak has been his nation's supreme leader since he was 19.
For 30 years, Americans, he notes, have bought into backing Mubarak on the idea that he is good for "stability."
"America should have kept Jimmy Carter all of these years for the sake of stability," my friend says jokingly.
When I first visited Egypt in 1988, I was surprised how positive Egyptians were about America. I was also surprised how little Islam permeated religious life. At the time, perhaps 1 percent of the women on the streets wore hijab, the traditional religious veil that covers the hair.
Egypt was firmly secular and oriented toward the West. This was the legacy of the Sadat years, which Mubarak, at first, sought to imitate.
But as the years passed, and he became president for life with dictatorial power, he became less interested in improving the lot of his nation and maintaining a secular, pro-Western culture.
Through the years, I have traveled often to Egypt — and was last in Cairo just over two years ago.
It is tragic what Mubarak has done to his nation. It is important to remember that Egypt was once the leading nation of the Muslim and Arab world — politically, culturally, and militarily.
Over time, Mubarak limited freedoms — imprisoning and torturing almost any political dissidents. Still, educated Egyptians voted with their feet.
During the Mubarak years, there has been a huge brain drain of the country's best and brightest. The most entrepreneurial have also fled. Just visit New York and New Jersey — you'll find many successful Egyptians living there.
Through it all, the U.S. has been a firm ally of Mr. Mubarak. We have done so on the basis that he has been a firm friend to the United States and has served as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
But has he? If you traveled to Egypt today, you would be shocked by the number of women wearing hijab. I had the impression on my last visit it was about 98 percent of the female population.
This transformation during the Mubarak years is remarkable, considering the State Department's view that he is fighting Islamic extremism.
My sources in Egypt said that Mubarak, after surviving several failed assassination attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood, agreed to allow them to flourish, as long as they did not challenge him and his state power.
Flourish they did. It is estimated today that 20 percent of the population identify with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is interesting to note that the Brotherhood has not taken a leading role in the protests against Mubarak, perhaps owing to their stealth pact.
At the same time Islamic groups flourished, poverty has grown, the disparity between rich and poor has widened, the once-fledgling middle class has been eviscerated, and legitimate, pro-Western democracy movements have been ruthlessly suppressed.
On television Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. government has taken the side of the Egyptian people in the current dispute. But we have backed the corrupt dictator for decades.
By doing so, American policy has been shortsighted.
President George W. Bush put the United States on a path to spend, in all, some $3 trillion to create a faux Arab democracy in Iraq and an unfathomable one in Afghanistan. President Bush claimed we were supporting the cause of democracy in the world. But in the one place our support of Western-style democracy may have had real impact — Egypt — we turned a blind eye to repression.
Indeed, both Republican and Democratic administrations have turned a blind eye to the cause of human rights and freedom in many countries like Egypt.
President Obama promised to turn over a new leaf. He even made a special focus to offer reform in the Arab world. But everywhere he continues to support corrupt regimes with lip service to the masses. Now that he is ensconced in office, it is becoming clear Obama simply has no foreign policy. He gives speeches but sets no policies.
I was reading Sunday's New York Times Magazine and its profile on Marty Peretz, the longtime owner of the liberal New Republic. The Times reveals Peretz's disenchantment with Obama.
“I’m not sure I feel betrayed, but it’s close,” Peretz told the Times. “Our first African-American president has done less to fight AIDS in Africa than George Bush, he’s done nothing on human rights, nothing to fight rape in Africa.”
The world is on the threshold of immense change. The Internet is connecting billions. Economic crisis is gripping almost every economy. Great cultural and religious rifts are showing as the tectonic plates of several civilizations bump up against each other. The world is searching for leadership and there is none. We see there is none inside of Egypt. And then we find there is none outside either.
American long-term interests are served if we can move Egypt onto the path to democracy, ensuring that its people are educated and prosperous. This is the best bulwark against Islamic extremism and a potential war with Israel.
If we remain consistent to our founding principles and fundamental human rights and seek those for all people, this is a path that will not fail us — ever.
Posts by Christopher Ruddy
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