Freedom’s March: Egypt at the Tipping Point
By Ambassador Richard S. Williamson
The march of freedom is not always simple, straight, or steady. But its cadence is the constant heartbeat of the repressed seeking their inalienable rights to dignity and liberty. Today, that drumbeat picks up momentum in the Middle East, among the last regions of the world that have resisted the modern tide of freedom.
From Tunisia, the tremors are now felt in Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region. There will be a transition in Cairo. Exactly when and how is as yet undetermined, but change will come. The United States finds itself running fast, trying to catch up to the parade leaving it behind.
On December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid to protest police confiscating his vegetable cart. Local demonstrations followed. Bouazizi died of burns on January 4. His funeral provided momentum for protests against unemployment, corruption, and repression to spread to other parts of the country. Ten days later, after demonstrations and clashes, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia now has a caretaker coalition government whose members change as it seeks a political equilibrium.
Tunisia’s cultural life dates to prehistoric times. The Phoenicians arrived over 3,000 years ago and the great city-state of Carthage was a major Mediterranean power. Nonetheless, it was an unlikely place for a spark that is bringing change to the region. With the Sahara to the south and more mountainous areas to the north, the coastal country of Tunisia has only 10 million people. It has not played a central role in Arab political affairs. But the Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia, in which an authoritarian ruler of 23 years was cast aside, opened the Arab imagination to what was possible and freed many from fear.
Today, Egypt is the epicenter of this turmoil unleashed in Sidi Bouzid. With its heritage, culture, 80 million people, and mighty military, Egypt has been the center of the Arab world. For 30 years, the United States has had a close relationship with the Egyptian military, been close to President Hosni Mubarak, and depended upon Egypt as a fulcrum of stability in the region. Egypt was also an important sponsor of the Middle East peace process. The United States should not throw that away lightly, but America also must be realistic and sensible about our relationship and the tide of events in Egypt.
Sixty percent of Egyptians are less than 30 years old. Unemployment is astronomical, while the elite in the Mubarak government have lived lavish lifestyles. Corruption has long permeated all levels of society. The rule of law is compromised. Elections are shams. The government has been unresponsive to legitimate popular grievances. And the police, known for brutality and torture, have been seen as an arm of Mubarak’s repression. The injustices have gone unaddressed and have festered. Sparked by Tunisia, last week the people spilled into the streets.
By the end of the day police were in retreat, their stations ransacked. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters was set on fire.
These protesters were something new. Young and sophisticated with social networking media, they were able to communicate and organize. They were not driven by a leading personality. There was no ideology. It was a body with no head, driven by pent-up rage. Their numbers grew. One young demonstrator said to a television reporter, “They stole our jobs. They stole our dignity. They stole our future. No more. Mubarak must go.”
Finally, on January 28, police attempted to crack down on the protesters. Water cannons were fired, tear gas shot into the crowds, and cameras were confiscated. There were pictures of armored vehicles rushing indiscriminately into crowds, and a television video of a demonstrator shot and killed with only a rock in his hand. Reports circulated of shots fired inside a mosque. By the end of the day police were in retreat, their stations ransacked. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters was set on fire.
Late Friday, Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people on TV, disbanding his government and promising to reassemble it with him as its head. The chairs were being shifted on the Titanic as it went down. The cries in the streets for Mubarak to leave continued. The next day, Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman, the head of intelligence, as his new vice president, the first designated vice president in Mubarak’s 30 years in power. But the window was closing. It was too little, too late.
The momentum for change is irresistible, the question is when and what.
That same evening, President Obama went before cameras to say that he had talked with Mubarak and told him Egypt must have government through consent. He told Mubarak he could no longer ignore the grievances of the people. And President Obama said that he had told Mubarak that America supported the human rights of the Egyptian people as it supported human rights everywhere. This was an important message. Mubarak was put on notice. But it came late, was inconsistent with much that had gone before, and had little immediate effect.
Saturday and Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters continued to gather in the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and elsewhere in Egypt. There was looting. The army had been deployed but did nothing to restrain the demonstrators. Curfews were ignored. The momentum for change is irresistible; the question is when and what.
U.S. Policy under Obama
President George W. Bush enthusiastically embraced the Freedom Agenda. However, his rhetorical overreach and the post-conflict problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, for many, discredited that cause. President Obama came to office seeking to distinguish himself from his unpopular predecessor. Among the policies in which he sought to draw that difference was in promoting freedom around the world. He said he would be more humble in his aspirations, willing to engage with all parties, more pragmatic, more respectful of others views, and would not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. To him, American exceptionalism was the same as Greek or British exceptionalism—which is to say, not very exceptional at all.
Early on, before her first trip abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that she would not allow human rights to impinge on other priorities. She dismissively said, “We know what [the Chinese] are going to say [about human rights] … But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.”
On her first trip to Egypt, she was asked about the conclusion of the State Department’s annual Country Report on Human Rights that the Egyptian “government’s respect for human rights remained poor … and serious abuses continued in many areas.” She chose not to express any particular concern nor demand action. Instead she said routinely, “We issue reports on every country. We hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement.” Then, when asked if the report might influence a possible visit to Washington by President Mubarak, she said breezily, “It is not in any way connected. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
After the corrupt June 2009 election in Iran, President Obama followed a path of cautious non-interference. He did not side with the people even as protesters were beaten, jailed, raped, and killed.
But, most dramatically, after the corrupt June 2009 election in Iran, President Obama followed a path of cautious non-interference. He did not side with the people even as protesters were beaten, jailed, raped, and killed. He did not side with human rights or freedom. He did not want to jeopardize the diplomatic efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Today, the Green Revolution is a fading memory, the nuclear talks have not borne fruit, and America’s moral authority was compromised. These events, of course, were watched closely by authoritarian regimes around the world. They were taking the measure of the president and his administration. And on freedom’s march, America was seen as weak, compromised, and accommodating.
On June 9, 2009, President Obama gave a speech in Cairo in which he did express support for democracy in the Middle East. That was welcome. He failed, however, to directly confront any of the region’s authoritarian regimes, including Mubarak. Subsequently, his administration has cut funds to support human rights, civil society, and democracy promotion in Egypt; precisely the sort of groundwork which would be so valuable in the current crisis.
The Obama administration’s messages during the opening days of last week’s protests in Egypt were not helpful either. On January 25, Secretary Clinton was asked about the demonstrations. She replied, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
Then on January 27, Vice President Joe Biden was asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator. He responded, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region, the Middle East peace efforts, the action Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with—with Israel … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
On January 28, as protests in Egypt grew, the Egyptian government cut off Internet and social media, and the police were engaged in brutal crackdowns. Not until very late did President Obama come out before the cameras and make a statement. He did reaffirm America’s commitment to human rights and report that he had told Mubarak to respond to the legitimate grievances of the people; but for many it was too little, too late.
As demonstrators are forced to continue their quest for reforms, they are beginning to take on an anti-American flavor absent in the opening days of this crisis.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading voice of the Egyptian opposition and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said America was a “lamb” on the crisis in Egypt. He told CNN after President Obama had spoken that U.S. “policies are a failure. You are lagging behind. As a friend of the United States, I tell you that you are losing influence.”
Throughout the weekend, the administration tried to straddle respect for their longtime friend Mubarak and reach out to the protestors. The message was muted, but at least there seemed to be some recognition that change was inevitable and that America needed to get on the right side of history.
Of course, it is a difficult situation. The Egyptian military is the key. It has been the dominant influence in Egypt for decades while avoiding domestic entanglements. It is seen as independent and respected by the Egyptian people, unlike the discredited and hated security forces. Will it serve a role of insuring stability and encouraging gradual political reform, as the military has done in South Korea and Turkey? Or will it seek to prop up another arbitrary authoritarian regime? America is not without influence with the Egyptian military. For decades our military-to-military cooperation has been close and, perhaps more importantly, the United States provides more than $1.3 billion of military aid to Egypt each year.
Understandably, there is concern that if the Army does not act there will be a power vacuum. What next? Many concerns are expressed about the Muslim Brotherhood. While this possibility cannot be dismissed cavalierly, the Muslim Brotherhood always has been a small minority within Egypt. There are alternatives other than autocrats and theocrats.
Sixty percent of Egyptians are less than 30 years old. Unemployment is astronomical, while the elite in the Mubarak government have lived lavish lifestyles.
As is often the case, America is trying to balance interests and values. But here the distinction is less than many suggest. In Egypt, the people are leading a call for reform, the very sorts of reforms that America has historically called for throughout the world. The longer Mubarak tries to hold on, the longer the protests will continue. And, as we have already seen, as demonstrators are forced to continue their quest for reforms, they are beginning to take on an anti-American flavor absent in the opening days of this crisis.
It is past time for Mubarak to go. He has lost the Egyptian people and he has lost legitimacy. It is in the interests of the United States and the Egyptian people for this to happen sooner, not later. Perhaps there can be a transition government led by Suleiman or ElBaradei, or some combination, with the support of the military. It can begin the necessary reform process. Presidential elections are scheduled for next September. That could be the target for insuring free and fair elections so the Egyptian people can finally realize the dignity and liberty to which they are entitled.
America does not have the luxury of dealing only with governments that share our commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Sometimes we must work closely with authoritarian regimes for our own advantage. We should not be reckless. Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated once again, however, that authoritarian regimes are inherently not stable. The people are denied the periodic opportunity to hold their leaders accountable in the ballot box. Curbs on media freedom and the right to assembly further cloud the ability of authoritarian regimes to know what their people want and expect. There is no open, transparent, and dependable way to arbitrate power. The regimes are repressive by definition. Resentment builds. Lacking procedural legitimacy, authoritarian regimes rely on fear. Once the repressed are free from fear, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt, there is a governance crisis.
As witnessed in China during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 and the brutal crackdown in Iran in 2009, that crisis may not succeed in ushering in a new day. We should be patient in our hope for progress and modest in our expectations. But that people everywhere want dignity, opportunity, and a responsive, representative government is undeniable, and demonstrated again today in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
Richard S. Williamson is a principal at Salisbury Strategies and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, and as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan.Top