Saturday, January 29, 2011

March like an Egyptian

Published on Middle East Mirror on January 29, 2011

It began in Tunisia, spreading like wildfire to the streets of Egypt and Yemen. Taking to public squares and defying brutal suppression, the people of these three Middle Eastern nations are demanding an end to the poverty, corruption, and repression they have long endured. For the sixth day, turmoil has continued to shake Egypt, with demonstrators defying curfew and forcing back police barricades. As the dramatic unrest continues, the 30-year Mubarak regime is in a tenuous state.

Under the Bush administration, "spreading democracy" in the Middle East was the oft-heard refrain. Yet when popular enfranchisement failed to bring results favorable to U.S. interests--as in 2006, when free elections brought Hamas to power in Gaza--the tenor began to change. While the administration issued cautious, general praise for aspirations toward democracy, "stability" had become the word of the day.

Now, in the midst of this historic uprising, Obama's rhetoric echoes that of his predecessor. Rather than condemning the autocratic regime, the president merely called on both sides to exercise restraint, mildly affirming Egyptians' democratic hopes and urging reforms. Obama's tepid response reflects a delicate balancing act. Rage against U.S.-backed strongmen fuels anti-Americanism and terrorism, yet democracy may pave the way for Islamist rule.

Obama's dilemma is not without legitimacy or historic precedent. While the demonstrations have had no singular leadership, and despite the prominent role of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has formed a significant presence within this movement. There is a possibility that this revolt will mirror the 1979 uprising that ousted the U.S.-friendly Shah of Iran. What we now call the Islamic Revolution began as an ideologically diverse movement strongly influenced by secular Marxism; only later did the religious fervor of Khomeini stand at its apex. If the people of Egypt are successful in toppling the regime, only time will tell what kind of replacement will emerge.

The Egyptian army will play a decisive role in the outcome of the unrest. Unlike the police force and security apparatus of the Interior Ministry, the army has not historically served as the boot of the regime. Not only has the army proved generally hesitant to use force on protesters, but there have been reports of soldiers stripping off their uniforms and joining in.

Egypt is a key U.S. ally in the region, receiving nearly $2 billion in annual foreign aid. In 2010, $1.3 billion went to military aid alone. Thus, the results of this uprising will undoubtedly have important consequences for U.S. relations with the Middle East. As the demonstrations continue, Obama's response will test the integrity of America's professed ideals. Will we fall down on the side of the tyrant we know, or will we risk uncertainty and support Egypt's people as they take their destiny into their own hands?

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