“The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.”
– President Barack Obama, February 1, 2011
It’s never a good time for a revolution, but it is the time to which we’ve come. It’s not a clash of religions, or classes, or wealth or power. These demonstrations are an expression of the Egyptian people being called to “determine your own destiny,” as President Obama advised when he appeared briefly to read a statement, Tuesday evening.
At the morning’s cabinet meeting, Secretary of State Clinton affirmed the administration’s call for “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
That transition, Obama added, “must begin now.” It seems almost Orwellian, this foreign policy in which yesterday’s friend becomes today’s, um, un-friend.
Suspend your American reality, if you can, for the moment, and realize that the choice is not always between friends and enemies, Christ and the Devil, Indians and cowboys, white and black (or vice-versa), and the alternative to a US backed dictator is not necessarily a communist or an Islamic revolutionary. (The world understands, though, that if you want to make a sales pitch for foreign policy to the United States, it helps to simplify it as a choice between halos and horns. Plenty of US politicians understand that too.)
With that dichotomous outlook, it is inevitable that we don’t always back the right horse; we back the right horse for now, and with that we can be very wrong. When Anwar Sadat‘s bravery in signing a peace treaty with Israel was rewarded with assassination, Hosni Mubarak was the horse of the moment. But “now” moments, as every college sophomore understands, are a moving target, especially when contrasted with “then” moments. Accordingly, the brave horse we backed then, is the stuck statue destiny is closing in on now.
Egypt is more powerful than one long serving, old man, and the stern system he represents. “All of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people,” Obama said, Tuesday. If the continuing protests have taught us anything, it’s that every nation is a nation of people, and no matter how heavy the government’s hand, there are those who long to give a voice to dissent, and remarkably many more who are brave enough to do it.
Mubarak likes to hold his difficult role as fighter of radicalism and helm-holder of peace with Israel as the most compelling reason for unflinching US support. Most Egyptians, however, are young and secular, and they understand what’s at stake in the cool peace they have with Israel, and what being in a permanent state of war with your neighbor costs in lives and materials.
Mubarak’s insistence that stability depends on him leaving on his own terms ignores two main things. First, that the alternative to his “stability” is not necessarily chaos; in fact, by unleashing his supporters to clash with demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, Wednesday, he is saying that he is depending on chaos to maintain stability. Secondly, the people will not allow him to stay.
Obama’s “orderly transition” differs from the beleaguered Egyptian president’s “stability” in that what “must begin now,” from the American’s point of view can wait until September, according to Mubarak. Meanwhile, he is willing to threaten, imprison and retaliate violently against his opposition. He has stopped listening to the people; when do we stop listening to what he wants, and show that we listen to the people of Egypt?
When people are dying in the streets of Cairo, it’s time to let go of the fence, Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, and coalesce around the Egyptian opposition. The ally is Egypt, not the man Mubarak, who was good for us until he wasn’t anymore.