i-a439aaec430b2d51cc818c1386437885-cairosunrise.jpgA 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.

i-f29bade227e9e2a84ee499d6a50081a0-latenightcabdrivingcairo.jpgYesterday, 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 â encouragingly â that the civil apparatus â courts, Constitution, etc. â 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.

More like this

People protested against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt outside the United Nations headquarters in New York on Saturday. Source: The New York Times This article was co-authored with Dr. Morad Abou-Sabe, President of the Arab American League of Voters of New Jersey. Dear President Obama, The US…
From the Guardian's liveblog of Friday's protests in Egypt. Earlier in the day, police were sent to attack protesters after Friday prayers, but the crowd pushed back, apparently taking control of the streets in Alexandria, Suez, and at least parts of Cairo. In response: Mubarak has sent in the…
This article was co-authored with Dr. Morad Abou-Sabe', President of the Arab American League of Voters of New Jersey. CNN's Ivan Watson talks to John King from Cairo about his exclusive interview with Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim. {February 9, 2011} The Egyptian revolution of January 25th,…
I closed my reflections on Egypt with the title's Ben Franklin quotation. And I want to expand on that point briefly, because there's often confusion about what it takes to make a republic. We sometimes think that a nation has become a democratic republic because it elects its leaders and has a…

Words mean very little from a president who oversees Gitmo, "the Salt Pit" and black sites around the world.
Bradley Manning is a good data point - our government only allows so much, then it does pretty much the same as the "bad" governments.

By https://me.yah… (not verified) on 28 Jan 2011 #permalink

I think the idea that the Egpytians were waiting for a brave American to stride in and offer them anyting is a little bit patronising and not really a fair reflection of what happened. Obama's speech was more of a sop to human rights rhetoric than a call for social change, and I think the recent events in Tunisia are more likely to have inspired the Egpytians than yet more vague rhetoric. Honestly what does "And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people." mean when the US supports the Mubarak regime and recently welcome him to Washington. Very little.

I think a little back turning might actually be in order here. Egypt needs democracy for itself, and after years of propping up Mubarak the US (and the other western powers) should probably just take a step back and let the Egyptians develop their own democracy.

I find Mr. Rosenaus' slant on events occurring in Egypt rather amusing. Mr. Rosanau is too young to remember what happened in Iran in 1979 but there were folks at that time making the same types of observations about the Shah that he is making about Mubarak. As we all know, the Shah was ousted, in no small part due to the dithering of former President James Earl Carter. How's that working out.

Just as the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini were the best organized of the opposition groups in Iran, the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood are the best organized of the opposition groups in Egypt. The assumption of power by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would be a disaster of monumental proportions for US foreign policy, not to mention for the State of Israel and Egyptian women. President Obama had better remember what happened to Jimmy peanut in the election of 1980 and consider the effect on his reelection prospects in 2012.

It's true that I was 1 year old in 1979, but I'm still familiar with the relevant history, and also with the differences between Egypt today and Iran then. Mohamed ElBaradei is not the Ayatollah, for one thing. For another, the revolt in the streets of Egypt is not an Islamic revolt. It is more similar to the ends of dictatorships in the Philippines and Indonesia than the Iranian revolution.

And do you think life under Mubarak was peaches and cream? That women are happy and safe? That backing Mubarak now would do US foreign policy or Israel any favors? Are you so blind as to really think the Obama administration has been dithering?

In Egypt there are riots, civil war in the capitals and the Western countries find a common position. Some, like UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon calling for free elections immediately, while Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Mubarak strengthens the back. Maybe that's a good thing, because ultimately must decide the Egyptian people, how to proceed there. In my eyes this Mohamed ElBaradei only one who now wants to jump on the moving train to dust at times quickly president. He is in my eyes is not democratic legitimacy.