Our Evolving Response to Egypt

We are walking slowly to get on the right side of history in Egypt.  Though our pace may be quickening.

The word from the Administration seems to be “transition” and an orderly one at that.  Sunday morning on Meet the Press Secretary of State Clinton reiterated the need to see “concrete steps” from the Egyptian Government to respond to the “legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people”.  The Secretary added the “steps that will result in a peaceful, orderly transition to a democratic regime is what is in the best interests of everyone, including the current Government” (emphasis mine).  See the full interview with Secretary Clinton here.

The Secretary did not call for the outright resignation of Mubarak – because she can’t.  Nor did she support the current Government.  In fact, the support was made explicitly to the “peaceful protesters” and implicitly to the Egyptian Army. “We have to deal with the situation as it is…we are heartened by what we hear from our contacts that at least, thus far, the Army has been trying to bring a sense of order without violence.”  Secretary Clinton seems to be softening the ground for U.S. support of a transition that involves the Egyptian Army ensuring a path toward elections.  At the beginning of the protests, while the Administration was doing everything to claim that Mubarak’s Government was stable and what we wanted, they were also ensuring that the Egyptian military would stay in line.  The threat to review the $1.3 billion in aid was aimed not at Mubarak, but at the Military.

It appears to have worked.  The Army has sworn not to use force on protesters.

Monday we saw another sign that the Administration is beginning to step closer to the opposition without publicly seeking an ouster of Mubarak.  Highly regarded diplomat and former Ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, was dispatched to Egypt.  Mr. Wisner is known in Egypt and is expected to speak with Mubarak throughout the week.  While no one will say whether he is bringing a message from the President, Ambassador Wisner is thought to be someone who can reinforce what has been said privately by the President and other Administration figures.  Speculation is wild and a bit unfocused, but many believe that he may be able to “nudge” Mubarak out of office.

Whether or not Ambassador Wisner has a message from President Obama or Secretary Clinton makes more forceful statements about the current Government, we are certainly trying to figure out what happens next.  The Administration is reaching out to Mohamed ElBaradei as the opposition begins to coalesce around him as leader.  Apparently it hasn’t been very successful.

We’ve all been spectators and have been excited by what we’re seeing in the streets of Cairo.  This is what we wanted to see during the protests in Iran.  It has also awakened us to some less than pleasant realities about our relationship to the world.  Egypt is our second largest recipient of military aid, behind Israel.  $1.3 billion a year since the Camp David Accords in 1979.  The tear gas canisters used against the protesters are stamped, “Made in U.S.A.”.  The tanks in the streets and the fighter jets above Tahrir Square are American made.  For 30 years we have traded democratic principles for a fair amount of stability.  For 30 years and six Presidents we have demanded our safety, and that of Israel, over the freedom of the Egyptian People.

Egypt is not an isolated case.  We have many “friends” in the world we wouldn’t bring home to mom.  This passage from the Washington Post begins to shed light on the Administration’s reluctance to support a people seeking freedom in the streets:

“The administration finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being a spectator rather than a principal actor in the drama being played out in the streets of Cairo. To some extent, its ability to get in front of events has been hampered by time zones and Mubarak’s shutdown of Internet and cellphone communications.
But officials said they are well aware of the need to tread carefully. Key regional allies – most of them guilty of at least some of the same repressive practices that appear to have doomed Mubarak – are watching U.S. actions closely for overt signs that a long-term partner is being pushed out the door.”

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain are allies and not democracies.  They help us by hosting our military bases or acting as emissaries and we don’t mention that we have a problem with Saudi women not being able to drive or leave the home with an unrelated man.  These are the calculations that countries make in a grown-up world.  Problem is, once the dominoes start falling the door to the right side of history closes quickly.

Finally, it’s time for us to begin learning more about the world and how we enter it.  This is what we get from a respected columnist in the Washington Post – “The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare.”  And this “I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights.” From the same column (third time’s a charm?), “America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.”  We know nothing of the world beyond our borders.

The Muslim Brotherhood – that sounds scary.  Is it?  They’re an unknown, but the group is not as ominous as we’ve been lead to believe.  They are certainly conservative but don’t appear radical.  They are very religious and would like to see Egypt’s law conform a bit more to Islamic law.  Is that much different from conservative Christians who want want to justify U.S. law with the bible? Or from a Governor who says that those who don’t know Jesus Christ are not his brothers and sisters?  There are radicals in their past.  Groups that have split off, but share the same heritage.  There are even some today who use less than civil language when they speak about the Egyptian Government.  Again I ask, who are we to judge?  Though the Muslim Brotherhood is a fairly organized group and won a few seats in the 2005 elections, it has essentially been banned from Egyptian civic life since the 1950’s.

We need to learn more so we can understand what it means when people say Muslim Brotherhood or claim that they are the same as Al-Qaeda or Hamas.  Because I’m pretty sure you can’t be all three.  This is a good place to start.  And maybe here.   Then check out their English language website.  Then perform a google search and find some hysterics.

This is an opportunity to prove that we actually can be plural.  Can we support self-determination even if that choice leads to a path we don’t understand or doesn’t benefit us?  Will we know enough about the players to make an informed decision about what it means for world?  We certainly couldn’t a few years ago.  We supported elections in Palestine and promptly freaked out when the Palestinians voted in large measure for Hamas.  There are legitimate concerns about Hamas, but democracy is unpredictable and we know that.  We decided to cut them off instead of finding a way to use their new found legitimacy to encourage them to act to improve the situation for their people.

I hope we do better in Egypt.

Pic Via.  Photo Credit – Pitarakis/AP

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