A year ago, I was at a conference in Alexandria, Egypt, and then spent a few days in Cairo. I got to experience the Egyptian culture, to see antiquities, and to meet some amazing people. It was my first trip outside the bubble of Western developed democracies, and was an eye-opening experience.
Cab drivers and others I talked with all remembered President Obama’s speech in Cairo and seemed to think highly of him and of the US. Despite my fairly Jewish looks and inescapably American affect, I never detected any animosity. Even the panhandlers and minor scam artists on the streets were friendly and helpful. Cairo’s air is filthy, and even new buildings look like they’re as old as the Pyramids, but the city itself is alive in a way few other cities really are.
If I positioned my computer just-so in the hotel room, I could catch a stray wireless signal, and check my email. I even posted to the blog one night. After posting, the thought occurred to me that Egypt is no democracy, and that I should watch what I said on blog posts and maybe even email. But then I recalled that Egypt is a tourist economy, and I realized that my white skin and American passport would shield me from the Egyptian secret police.
Yesterday, protests broke out on the streets of Cairo, including streets that I wandered through with the friends I’d made in Alexandria. There are rumors that the police have shot protesters, and other rumors that the Mubarak regime has blocked (international?) access to the internet, in hopes of disrupting the protests. On Twitter and on Facebook and through other online social networks, observers from America and around the world are watching and looking for ways to help the people in the streets. Mother Jones has a frequently-updated explainer on the situation.
Students of the Middle East say these are the strongest challenges to the Mubarak regime in its 30 year history, and note – encouragingly – that the civil apparatus – courts, Constitution, etc. – in Egypt is probably strong enough to serve as a check on Mubarak’s power if he would simply lift the emergency orders he imposed immediately upon assuming power. Then again, the entry of Muslim Brotherhood activists into the protests creates a danger that any new regime will be more religiously conservative, and more repressive, than the one it replaces.
As I read about the work Egyptians are doing to demand freedom, and as I read about the internet blocking and violence employed against Egyptians, I keep coming back to how blithely I could push aside my own worries about government censorship and how easy it was for me to assume that my passport would protect me should my comments run afoul of Mubarak’s censors. It’s hard for those of us accustomed to those freedoms to appreciate what it means to be stripped of them.
It is clearly not as hard for those living in such oppressive conditions to rise above them, and to demand freedom. It doesn’t hurt that the President of the United States traveled to their capital, and extended the promise of those rights directly to them:
I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.
This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
Whether or not the Vice-President thinks Mubarak is a dictator, the President’s words make clear what must happen for Egypt to become a true democracy. The protests in the streets, the “How To Overthrow” guides leaking out of Egypt, all signal that the people feel coerced, do not feel respected, and do not think their needs have been a factor in Mubarak’s policies. Recent multi-party elections have been described as “a sham” by outside observers, and after the collapse of Tunisia’s government, and the resolution of decades-long conflict in Sudan, Egyptians rightly think the time has come for a civilized government in this cradle of human civilization.
It’s easy to turn our backs on these problems, to pretend they aren’t so bad, or don’t affect us. But they do affect us, they are exactly that bad, and turning our back won’t make them go away. Egypt deserves freedom because all people deserve freedom. Our president traveled there and offered “a new beginning,” and the Egyptian people have taken up the call. I hope the new beginning comes peacefully, and that the beautiful nation I saw last year, and the beautiful people who live there, will emerge from this happier, stronger, and more free.