Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Mubarak Moment II: An American Duty

New York -- When I lived in Cairo in 2003, I was in on the ground floor of the protests in Liberation Square at the start of Iraq War. I took pictures, I wrote an oped, and there is a chapter in Live from Jordan about the event. The security forces roughed up some protestors that day, but the whole thing was a sham. Egyptians were upset about the war, but no one cared enough to stop working, to stop eating at McDonalds, or really to alter their lives in any meaningful way.

The opposite is true in Egypt, today. Tunisians showed Egyptians what was possible in 2011, and Egyptians, long the standard-bearer of the Arab World in so many ways, couldn’t bear to live with the shame of the Mubarak regime any longer. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not a couple million people, have taken their lives into their hands to challenge the repressive authority.

At this point in the standoff, it is clear that the regime has made its internal deals and that succession has passed over Mubarak’s son. The military – Egypt’s strongest institution – would have been shamed by the father passing the baton to his son. Egyptians are proud of their history and the turning of their faux-Republic into a Syrian-styled family business would not have been acceptable. This democratic moment preempted that discomfort for the military, and its mission is accomplished. While not securing his son’s throne must surely have been a bitter pill for Mubarak, his redline is undoubtedly a refusal to die in exile as a banished villain, to be sent away like a 21st Century version of King Farouk. The regime has dug in, and the brass has little stake in a continued confrontation.

At the same time, these Egyptian everyday heroes have lived a dream this past week. They’ve come together in the power of numbers, bound by common frustrations and propelled by common hopes. When the protests first began, they never could have hoped to gather this type of lasting attention and to win back such dignity. They’ve been kicked for years and they finally stood up and said no more. Their movement has morphed, though, from making a show of pride to changing the reality of their country and the way their government operates.

Egyptians are on the cusp of changing the very premise of what is possible. That’s intoxicating. It is light and fresh air in a teeming, dark basement. This isn’t regime change from the turret of an American tank; rather it could be a renaissance of Egyptians’ own creation.

But it is a fine line between dreams and nightmares. Together, Egyptian demonstrators are safe. Alone, they will suffer. If the plain-clothes thugs who are beating protestors at this very moment succeed in clearing Liberation Square without a formal political transition in place, then it will all end. There will be no promise of that better tomorrow. Instead, there will be the lurking fear of the knock on the door. Bloggers, Facebook posters, and photographed protestors – they’ll all be vulnerable without the strength of numbers.

Egypt has one of the most notorious prison systems in the Arab World. Many contend that the ideology of al Qaeda was spawned in Egypt’s prisons, where Islamist dissidents were tortured and radicalized further. That style of abuse is what falling short of the dream means.

Yesterday, I co-wrote an oped about this moment as an opportunity for Israelis, about how those who live in a democracy need to support those who are willing to die for democracy. This isn’t just about Israelis, though; it is about us as Americans. There is no question that Egypt is an integral strategic partner to the United States, and foreign policy is based upon interests, not sentimentality. As long as Egyptians were content to go about their everyday lives and not to seek change – as was the case in 2003 – then I didn’t have much of a problem with the practicalities of having to deal with a dictator. But people are dying in the streets to remove that dictator, and journalists are being beaten and arrested to clear the scene of witnesses.

Tomorrow, after Friday prayer, will be a big day. Without the protection of the White House, I don’t think the pro-democracy forces will tip the balance.

There are times when we have to ask what side of history do we want to be on? Supporting human rights and governing democratically are pillars of the identity we espouse as a country. You can argue that we risk strategic interests and stability as related to Iraq, the Suez Canal, and Israel by siding with democratic change in this case. I argue that we risk losing the very character of who we are, any claim to American exceptionalism, if we don’t support our friends who are risking their lives, en masse, for their rights.

To live in a democracy is a privilege and a responsibility. As citizens, we have a duty to support others who are actively struggling for that same privilege and responsibility. Contact the White House, post on Facebook, stop what you are doing for five minutes, and do something to support the citizens of Egypt.

If you want to read a short piece about what we should hope to see in Egypt, this is an excellent analysis by Michelle Dunne.

If you want to read a beautifully written piece about the importance of this moment, this is a wonderful article by Anthony Shadid.

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