I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the news out of North Africa the past couple of weeks. Tunisians deposed their government using largely massive street protests. The despot ruling the country, Zine el Abidine ben Ali, chose to take the money and run in lieu of using the Tunisian military to crush the protests. Best of all, getting rid of the President-for-Life did not involve foreign invasion- especially by the US.
The US government has been extremely cozy with Tunisia’s dictator for a long time, providing him with international legitimacy in exchange for Tunisia’s strategic position. As a result, the US government was pretty slow to catch on to the fact that Abidine ben Ali was on his last legs, politically. Once this fact became glaringly obvious to everyone on the planet, the Administration was slow to react, and still haven’t come up with a policy for the new reality on the ground in Tunisia.
That brings me to Egypt. The US has been providing Egypt’s President-for-Life, Hosni Mubarak, international legitimacy and billions of dollars in military and economic aid for the last thirty years. In a stereotypical Arab strongman manner, Mubarak completely failed to use this loot to improve the lot of the average Egyptian. Instead, he built up his military and security forces, and made sure a lot of that money went into his pockets and trickled down to a few of his cronies. There’s an old joke that applies, here:
“Mr. President, I’ve noticed that you’re spending billions on the Army, but nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor.”
“This is so. When the Revolution comes, I want to be ready.”
Based on the scenes from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, Mubarak lost his bet. Most of Egypt’s troops are conscripts drawn from the very people Mubarak’s government would have them put down. Far too many of them have been seen joining the protesters. Worse (from Mubarak’s point of view), the US government has loudly warned Egypt to avoid using a military bought and paid for by the United States against those protesters.
Other than that, the US government has been characteristically slow to respond to the protests, even as the rest of the world watched in awe. The American response to a (literally) world-changing event can be reduced to the following: “Play nice.” High-order platitudes and vague calls for restraint aren’t going to cut it. US Middle-East policy is being changed on the streets of Egypt by ordinary Egyptians- both the military and the protesters.
Let us take a look at those protesters. Middle-class Egyptians are joining beggars, students, and off-duty military personnel in protesting against Mubarak’s rule. There have been well-documented cases of protesters providing first aid to the security forces who have been injured, and they also joined together to protect the National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo from looters until the Army could arrive to provide security. For those who weren’t following the news from Egypt until the protests started, a large number of Muslim Egyptians did the same thing for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority when the Copts were attacked by radicals. Muslims formed human chains to protect the Copts from violence in a show of rationalism and tolerance rarely seen anywhere, let alone in what the US refers to as the Middle East. When interviewed by western media outlets, most of those protecting their Coptic neighbors said some variation of the same ideal: “We are all Egyptians. They are our brothers.”
There are a large number of people in this country who could learn from those Egyptian Muslims.
Leaving aside geopolitical strategy (which the US government is historically incapable of managing adeptly in any case), we should be siding with the protesters. Those people marching in the streets of Egypt’s cities want nothing more or less than something we Americans take for granted: a say in running their own country. Mubarak and his cronies have grown rich and completely disconnected from the realities of life in Egypt, and the US government has encouraged him to do so. I, for one, am very tired of my government propping up dictators, despots, and presidents-for-life in the name of global strategy. The people of Egypt deserve the chance to make their own future- whether or not that future meets the approval of the US government.
I say we- as a nation- would be better served by dealing with the people who protected their christian countrymen from violent fellow Muslims than with a self-serving thug who enriches himself at the expense of his people and his country.
Current status: Amazed
Current music: I Write Sins, Not Tragedies by Panic! At the Disco