Usually I try to blog on topics where I can offer a smidge of expertise or experience. On the Middle East, I have neither (beyond the Iranian exiles who befriended me at my first post-college job, and a rudimentary knowledge of their history). Tonight, I write only because I am moved by the courage of the people taking to the streets, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt and Yemen. I am frightened for their safety. I am awed at the transformative potential they are unleashing for their countries and for the entire Arab world.
Perhaps Iran circa 1979 isn’t such a poor comparison? In a lot of ways, the situation in Egypt reminds me of the Iranian Revolution that brought the Ayatollah to power. A dictator long supported by the United States is challenged by mass uprisings. A people long yearning for self-determination takes to the streets. Islamists waiting in the wings. A substantial secular opposition.
Will the U.S. learn from our mistakes in Iran?
Back in 1979, Jimmy Carter openly professed American loyalty to the Shah. Obama has not done the same for Mubarak, though Joe Biden has proclaimed Mubarek “not a dictator.” I suspect Biden was running off at the mouth with about as much forethought as when he called Obama “clean and articulate.” Thoughtless pronouncements could cost lives. Might this be a good time for Biden to be called up for jury duty again?
President Obama would be standing for American values if he encouraged Hosni Mubarak to leave office now. Mubarak (and his son, it is almost needless to say) have no credibility, and the U.S. will have no credibility if it doesn’t support the aspirations of these frustrated protesters. Will the Muslim Brotherhood follow in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall? Not necessarily. But the U.S. will make that possibility less remote if it doesn’t stand with the people now.
I’m not downplaying the threat the Muslim Brotherhood poses, to America or to Israel. And I fear for the future of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. And there is a chance this regime could survive, for a while. But these facts are overwhelmed by the reality on the streets.
I’m not sure it would be prudent for Obama to call publicly for Mubarak to step down. I’m queasy with fear that the protestors could be massacred, Tiananmen-style. But couldn’t the U.S. quietly arrange for Mubarak’s safe passage out of Egypt to a friendly third country? Not to the U.S., please! Iran convulsed with rage after the Shah was allowed to come here for medical shelter. We don’t want to embolden the theocrats in Egypt. It’s bad enough that they can rally just anger against the U.S. for its thirty-year policy of supporting Mubarak despite human rights abuses. It doesn’t help, either, that the tear gas canisters used against the protesters are labeled “Made in the U.S.A.” Mubarek also can’t just emulate the Shah, whose first and last station in exile was … Egypt.
But surely we still have no shortage of despots among our friends? One or the other ought to be open to a bribe for harboring Mubarak. We can just call it, y’know, foreign aid. If the U.S. eased Mubarak’s departure , we could then provide succor to the more secular and democratic-minded protesters. As long as Mubarak remains, open U.S. support for the protesters risks triggering a crackdown.
On a less analytical note, I was floored by the fact that the Egyptian government could just shut the whole damn Internet down. I thought the distributed nature of the net was supposed to prevent such centralized censorship? Evidently an oligopoly of ISPs existed, which enabled the Internet to be shut down by taking those ISPs offline. The proximate cause was apparently government intimidation of the ISPs. I still don’t claim to understand it fully, but the graph of Internet usage in Egypt is stunning:
The sun is rising on Cairo, Suez, Alexandria. I hope that Egyptians – and Tunisians and Yemeni – are waking up to a day when no protesters will be gravely harmed. A day that brings them a little closer to democracy and self-determination. A day that repeats itself until it becomes months and years. May it someday be remembered as the dawn of a new era.