Egypt and Tunisia – a Tale of Two White Houses

Updated below.

Secretary of State Clinton called for the Egyptian Government to “open a dialogue” with the people of Egypt today.  It was, by far, the strongest statement yet from the Administration.  To this point the President has searched for balance, calling for calm in the streets and the mechanisms for people to express legitimate grievances.   Vice President Biden wouldn’t label Hosni Mubarak a dictator.   Mubarak has been President for 30 years – he was appointed after the assassination of Anwar El-Sadat.

Mubarak “wins” sham “elections” every six years.  The first three re-elections featured no challenger because of restrictions in the Egyptian constitution.  After increasing domestic and international pressure, the process was opened up in 2005 and Mubarak faced several challengers.  Unfortunately the election systems and state security services are controlled by the President.  Allegedly illegal votes were cast, votes bought, and unsurprisingly Mubarak won.  The results were disputed and dissidents and leaders of opposition parties were convicted and thrown into prison.  During these protests Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet have been shut down.  Journalists have been beaten and summarily detained, the police have become violent with protesters.  If this isn’t a dictatorship, what is?

Contrast this with the President’s response to the events in Tunisia.  Even as protests were beginning in Egypt, the President praised the protesters in Tunisia, as he should have – “We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”  The President also mentioned U.S. support for and assistance with the vote for independence for Southern Sudan.  Tunisia and Sudan were remarkable moments.  People striving to be free have grabbed their destiny with both hands and demanded change.  We rightly support that.

Cairo is buring right now and it is just as historic as Tunis, and even more important. The United States fully supports the protesters fighting for freedom like we did in Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, and Kosovo.

Unless, of course, those people demonstrating and fighting for freedom happen to live under the rule of a friend of ours.  Egypt has been an important ally for the U.S.  for years.  We like the stability of a less than democratic leader in a nation that has helped us in negotiations with other Arab nations, the wars, and even the Israel/Palestine issue.  This, of course, undermines the messages we project about freedom and democracy.  We label Egypt a republic because, technically, it is – but what republic allows the same leader to remain in power for thirty years?  What republic allows that same leader to groom his son to replace him rather than holding free and open elections?

We support the people who serve our interests and not the people.  The events in Tunisia and Sudan serve our interests because those countries are not central to U.S. plans.  It benefits our message to support democracy.  On the other hand, some revolutions don’t “help” us so much.  Look at out support of the Contras in Nicaragua.

Mubarak is steady and an Egypt without Mubarak is unpredictable.  Without Mubarak we may lose an ally in the area.  So we offer tepid support to the people and blandly call for the government to not kill people who are seeking a voice in their future.  We should support the cause of self-determination.  The world doesn’t move forward with dictators like Mubarak.  They hold us back.  In the end, it’s a choice we make – do we support the notion that a people should be able to determine for themselves who leads them, that they should be free to criticize their government or do we support dictators because it makes our lives easier?

Our inconsistent messages and actions are not good for our interests in the long-term.  In the past we could almost justify supporting certain dictatorships as a bulwark against the USSR during the Cold War.  It’s not the Cold War anymore and as more and more countries are emerging from the morass of juntas, military rule, paper republics, and dictators we need to be loud about our support for self-determination.  Without it, we breed contempt and our long-term interests are seriously damaged.

Pic Via

Update:

The White House may be backing off support (scroll down to 3:12 and 3:19 pm) for Mubarak: Robert Gibbs: at today’s press conference “The legitimate grievances that have festered for some time need to be addressed by the Egyptian government…”

This is a good thing.  Has it suddenly become untenable to support a dictator in the face of massive protests? Or is it simply a matter of backing off publicly?

Meanwhile, Chris Matthews is asking the wrong questions. I don’t have the video, but Matthews just asked a guest, “what alternative Government in Egypt would be good for us?”  That’s a question the Administration and Congress ask, not the Fourth Estate.  Your job is to ask what is the alternative that we are likely to see and what will that mean for us and our allies.

Update 2:

President Obama made statements today after speaking with Mubarak today.  After Mubarak essentially fired his entire government, which hasn’t stopped the protests, President Obama urged “concrete steps to advance the rights of the Egyptian people.”  The President also hedged his bets a bit and supported “peaceful protesters” calling for calm on the streets and urging the Egyptian government to not use force or violence on the protesters.  He asked for the government to stop blocking the internet and cell phone service and said that the people of Egypt had a “human right” to protest. 

We’ll see if the President continues to parse his support for Mubarak and the peaceful protesters.  If President Obama does not see “meaning engagement” from Mubarak will his criticism grow stronger?

Update 3:

Cairo is  smoldering and several more protesters have died.  Mubarak has named his top spy as Vice President and many in the ruling party have left the country by private plane.   Refusing to rely on the police, residents are forming groups to protect their neighborhoods, boarding up homes and businesses.  Sunday is normally the start of the business week in Egypt but schools and the stock market will be shuttered for the day.  If in 1989 we saw the beginnings of the fall of the “Iron Curtain”, this week may have shown us the first steps toward the fall of the “sand curtain”.  What comes out of the White House over the next few days will be very telling about the choices we’re willing to make as a country.

The best on-going coverage is at Al Jazerra.

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