In 24 hours, Egypt changed the world. We do not know what the nation will look like three months or even three weeks from now — but we do know that we were wrong. As Americans, we were wrong to support a 30-year autocracy. It’s been seven days since the thousands of men and women, Christians and Muslims, have cast aside their fears for the opportunity to cast a ballot with meaning. Washington may fear instability in the region, but it should not lose sight of human struggle that our government, which gave $1.3 billion of aid to Mubarak’s regime alone, helped suppress for so long.
In his well-received speech in Cairo in June of 2009, Obama chastised rulers who advocate for democracy only after they are out of power. He valorized a government “of the people and by the people” that “sets a single standard for all who would hold power.” When Obama’s words amounted to nothing, resentment brooded. And after Tunisia pushed the door ajar, the Egyptians flung it open.
Recently, News staff columnist Trevor Wagener linked Obama’s empty rhetoric to a fear that radical Islamic groups could take power in unstable countries, leading to Iran-style theocracy. This fear of the Islamist boogeyman is echoed by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statement, “Our real fear is of a situation that could develop … repressive regimes of radical Islam.”
We do not claim to know Egypt’s fate. Unlike Wagener and Netanyahu, we do not presume that “the protests will lead to Islamist takeover.” We also contend that it is not the job of the U.S. to frustrate revolts throughout the Middle East. These misgivings rest upon a false dichotomy that has justified our foreign policy in the region for decades — a choice between secular despotism, and Islamic fundamentalism — as if these peoples were incapable of taking some other path.
First, it is important to revisit the purposes of the demonstrations. Let us listen to the Egyptians, in their own words, as they express reasonable desires: an end to rampant corruption, injustice and high unemployment; an end to their lack of rights and an end to torture; guaranteed freedom of the press, and real elections. Egyptians want to stop having to work several jobs despite having professional degrees. It would be misguided to ignore the signs and banners Egyptians are raising high above their heads, demanding Mubarak leave after “30 years of corruption, 10 different governments and 80 million suffering.”
Second, the claim that an Islamic dictatorship will take hold in Egypt assumes that the Muslim Brotherhood will have the capacity to co-opt the protests, in spite of the wills of the numerically weak middle class. However, the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact a largely middle-class movement and has failed to find favor with, let alone comprehend, the lower classes that make up the bulk of Egypt’s population now protesting on the streets. It is important not to overestimate the currency of the Muslim Brotherhood among Egyptians. Furthermore, the fear of an Islamic theocracy irresponsibly conflates all Islamist movements in all countries, leading to fragmentary understanding of the situation. The Tunisian Al-Nahda, for instance, calls itself a Liberal Islamist party, about as dogmatic as the German Christian Democrats.
Though we don’t know what will happen next, we know that to continue to support autocrats would be a grave mistake. The most radical Islamist movements gain much currency from the injustice of foreign-backed dictators like Mubarak and Ben Ali. And in any case, the bubble will eventually burst. As the Egyptians and Tunisians have demonstrated, people cannot be caged forever. As a Foreign Policy piece, co-authored by Yale professor Ellen Lust, posits: “When the history of the Middle East’s winter revolutions is written, and scholars try to explain why those remarkable events ushered in an era of region-wide hostility toward and non-cooperation with the United States, they will point to Vice President Biden’s refusal to call Mubarak a dictator, or Hillary Clinton’s urging Egypt’s brave pro-democracy activists to calm down, or President Obama’s blithe announcement that the protests indicated that ‘now would be a good time to start some reform.’” Indeed, Wagener’s callous willingness to sacrifice the political liberties and well-being of another people at the altar of his paranoia is profoundly troubling, but also indicative of the mindset that landed us here in the first instance.
Luckily, the thousands on the streets in Cairo, London, New York and even Hartford have neither a plan nor a desire to support a new repressive Egyptian government. They are on the streets for Waseem Wagdi, the Egyptian Englishman who cried for millions, claiming, “We will not wait for our children to dream.” They are on the streets for Mohamed Bouaziz, the Tunisian street vendor who was so desperate for a voice that he set himself on fire in protest. They are on the streets for all Egyptians, Yemenis, Algerians, Tunisians, Albanians and Americans who are willing to risk short-term stability for a chance at realizing what the world has so long kept from them, who understood Martin Luther King when he said, “A right deferred is a right denied.” Fear exists, but we should not use it as an excuse to turn our heads from this deeply human struggle.
Omar Mumallah, Shahla Naimi and Aala Abdelgadir are juniors in Pierson, Trumbull and Berkeley colleges.
Correction: February 3, 2011
The opinion column “A righteous struggle against autocracy” misspelled Shahla Naimi’s ’12 name.