(CAIRO, EGYPT – 2/13/2011 – By Ahmed Bedier) The events unfolding in Egypt are close to my heart; I was born in Cairo and lived there as a child. Over the last few weeks, conversations I have been hearing clearly indicate that most Americans don’t really understand what the Egyptian people are calling for. They see only civil unrest. There is much more at stake – and Americans need to know why they should care.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime has been oppressive for decades. Through threats, torture, or prison, the
regime has silenced anyone who has dared to raise a voice of dissent. This should have been unacceptable in America, a country that claims to value liberty, justice and democracy for all. Yet, for years, our government’s foreign policy has favored perceived stability (enforced by a brutally oppressive dictatorship) over individual autonomy, freedom of speech, and numerous other basic rights.
Few Americans realize that Egypt has not been a free country since at least 1967, when the government imposed emergency laws in response to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. With the exception of 18 months just prior to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s police powers have been extended, constitutional rights have been suspended and censorship has been legal.
It is this oppression and denial of liberties Westerners take for granted that precipitated today’s political crisis in Egypt. Picture an America where all Internet access has been cut off. Facebook and Twitter are banned. The only media allowed must tow the government line. This is the picture in Egypt in recent weeks.
Despite the attempt to cut communications, this movement that started out as a youth-inspired protest on January 25th. That protest has turned into a massive, peaceful people’s revolution. It has united young and old, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor. As Thomas Jefferson put it, humanity has been “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is what the nearly 8 million Egyptians who have taken to the streets in multiple cities across the country are calling for. The largest gatherings took place in Tahrir Square or Liberty Square as it is being called.
Against this background it should be easier for Americans to understand why when Mubarak failed to announce his resignation during his speech Thursday night there was anger and frustration. Egyptians want the entire regime to be dismantled, not just for one dictator to leave only to be replaced by another. The Mubarak regime and his National Democratic party have a history of violating Egypt’s constitution in every way possible. Egyptians are demanding the ability to elect leaders who are loyal to just and democratic principles. How can leaders who have proven to be loyal only to themselves be part of Egypt’s future? How can Mubarak loyalists be trusted?
As I have watched our government’s response to what is happening in Egypt, I have seen the administration change its tune on Egypt over the past couple of weeks. It began with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring that the Egyptian “government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Then U.S Vice-president Joe Biden said on the PBS NewsHour that “Mubarak is not a dictator but a good friend of America.” Both statements reflect a poor understanding of the plight of the Egyptian people and sent the message that America favors standing behind a man known for oppressing his own people. Later, our leaders began saying they’re urging Mubarak to listen to his people and make reforms. Then, they were saying they wanted Mubarak to secure a peaceful transition of government.
This past week, right wing Republicans met at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention. The group that’s normally aggressive about spreading American style freedom and democracy in the Middle East, was very quite on the current Egyptian revolution. In fact almost all members of congress did not know how to react and avoided the topic. After all, congress has believed for years that Arabs and Muslims disliked democracy and some even hated freedom.
Now that President Mubarak has stepped down the U.S. leadership is still sending a mixed message.
Biden claims that the U.S. has always believed that the future of Egypt would be determined by the Egyptian people. He claims that the U.S. has stood for a set of core principles during the uprising, including accepting violence against demonstrators as “unacceptable” and calling for the respect of Egyptians’ rights. He said the U.S. has also urged that Egypt’s political transition be an “irreversible change” and a negotiated path toward democracy. Biden added that Democrats and Republicans have largely spoken with one voice on the issue, and said that unity will be even more important in the “delicate” days ahead.
Much of this is mere posturing. The American government has been inconsistent in applying its values of liberty, justice and democracy for all in its foreign policy. For years, our government’s foreign policy has violated the basic principles upon which this country was founded upon.
This seems to violate a key principle that underlies the concept of governance. The Golden rule says, treat others how you want to be treated. If we want to be treated as full citizens with certain unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we must want it for others around the world.
Our government must do everything it can to support the Egyptian peoples’ quest for democracy, not because it serves our selfish short-term interests, but because it’s the right thing to do. We will then realize that freedom for others is in our long term interests.
The Egyptian revolution has sparked the debate in Washington if we should continue to back dictators (like Mubarak) in the name of stability or push for real democracy. The answer is simple, supporting freedom for the people of Egypt (and others around the world) is our interest.
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