What Should Obama Say About Egypt?

28 January 2011

In the past few days, the Obama Administration has begun to feel as though it is on the wrong side of history in Egypt. It’s becoming impossible to imagine how President Mubarak can stay in power without a truly brutal crackdown, and by continuing to give credence to him as a ruler, instead of calling upon him to step aside, the U.S. is putting itself on the side of the oppressors. The State Department is surely engaging aggressively behind the scenes in ways that cannot be made public, and it’s encouraging to hear that the U.S. government will “review” its support for Mubarak’s regime. But all the same, public statements that don’t voice support for the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people serve to support the regime.

Likely the best case scenario we can hope for– both for the U.S. and for Egyptians– is for Mubarak to step aside, and the military to assume control of the country until free elections can be held and a democratic government can take power. If free elections were held, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely be part of any ruling coalition, and Egypt’s peace with Israel could be called into question. Clearly, this is potentially problematic for the U.S. government, but the problems presented by failing to voice support for a democratic movement in Egypt are just as, if not more significant.

In Tunisia, it was easy enough for the U.S. government to praise the democratic aspirations of the revolutionaries and call for the ouster of the government. In Egypt, it’s harder. But it’s even more important. America’s history of supporting repressive dictatorships in the Arab world has caused an awful lot of ill will toward the U.S. among ordinary citizens of those countries. Looking toward a democratic Egypt, the U.S. government should welcome the prospect, and rather than supporting Mubarak to the end, the Obama Administration should reach out to Mohamed el-Baradei, the April 6 Movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other civil society leaders, and encourage their leadership in building a democratic Egypt. Democracy in Egypt is not only right, it’s seeming inevitable, and the United States ought not be on the wrong side of it.

It’s worth looking back at what President Obama said in Cairo in 2009:

OBAMA:   I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq.  So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people.  Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.  America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.  But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things:  the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise.  But this much is clear:  Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.  Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.  America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.  And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.  (Applause.)  So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power:  You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.  Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Barack Obama, we love you!

Hopefully, the Obama Administration can live up to those words. American policy has helped maintain autocracy for decades– not just in Egypt, but all over the Arab world– and while that history won’t be forgotten, it’s not too late to remember our values. We should be inspired by what we see in Egypt this week, and we should hope that oppressed people all over the region are themselves moved to stand up for their rights.

Thoughts?

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