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The Self Shelf: 20/20 foresight

Published: February 18, 2011
Section: Opinions


A week ago, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in Egypt. It was a rare example of thousands of protesters winning out against the dictator for once, no thanks to the United States. There were scant words of support for the democratic protesters in Cairo in spite of their legitimacy. Instead, America took a backseat as the Egyptian people took back their state from a dictator.

For too long, we have had a heavily pragmatic foreign policy with a façade of idealism. We spread freedom to Iraq while cutting deals with autocratic states like Egypt. Our troops die defending the women of Afghanistan yet we provide support to such notorious abusers of women’s rights as Saudi Arabia. I understand a certain amount of practicality is necessary but I believe that Egypt has taken this one step too far.

The United States supported Mubarak through his many abuses for pragmatic means for decades. A stable Suez canal and an Egypt that had regular relations with Israel were too good of a deal to pass up. Thus, when Mubarak got, quite literally, 100 percent of the vote in the last rigged elections, the United States turned a blind eye.

Yet the Egyptians did not. Tired of having their rights trampled upon, they banded together to protest. And yes some of them are radicals. Many point to the Muslim Brotherhood and warn that the alternative to Mubarak is Islamic fundamentalists. Yet they are not all that radical compared to groups like Al-Qaeda. In fact, Osama bin Laden even disavowed the Brotherhood as a weak puppet of the west. Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood has only become more radical as the Mubarak regime has attempted to crack down on it. If people really want a less radical Muslim Brotherhood, they would allow them to have some political efficacy. Without an outlet to channel their views, there is only way for the group to trend and that is towards radicalism, like any disenfranchised minority. Additionally, it is not as if these protesters are even violent. They have passed out pamphlets explaining about the concept of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. Indeed, there have been relatively few deaths in this process and many of those were caused by the government. Thus, we could not even claim that we were helping prevent anarchy—we were fighting against a legitimate democratic movement. And I do realize that we have to do business with antidemocratic states. Egypt, however, is and was not one of them. We should never find ourselves supporting the tyrant against the people.

The foreign policy benefits of stability in the region, championed by the supporters of the status quo, are merely an illusion. How could one have considered a dictatorship facing large riots “stable?”

This was not a riot of a few thousand college students. This was an alliance of hundreds of thousands of protesters in Cairo alone coupled with a large portion of the army. Admittedly, there was the question of the new Egypt’s relationship to Israel but Egypt has an interest in keeping the status quo in place. It does not want thousands of Palestinian refugees rushing across the border and I am certain that it would be willing to work with its most powerful neighbor. Skeptics prophesy a breakdown in Egyptian-Israeli relations but there is a huge economic interest for Egypt to maintain good relations, especially after a huge change in power. The new state will be looking for legitimacy and committing economic suicide is not a means to achieve that end. As to the Suez Canal, I do not understand how any rational person could think that Egypt would actually close the Suez Canal. This would be the equivalent of a small town burning down the local shopping center out of spite. It simply does not make economic or political sense for Egypt to close one of the most lucrative trade routes in the world.

But the main reason the United States should never have backed Mubarak in any way against the protesters was the legitimacy of the rebels. Even from a pragmatic view, openly supporting democracy in Egypt would have been a good idea. Supporting an autocratic government trying to keep the people down certainly does not look good to an Arab world that distrusts America’s motives (spreading democracy … when it’s pragmatic). Meanwhile, we are only just beginning to open relations with new government groups—we should have done this weeks ago. This could have been much worse for the United States. The last time we supported a dictator against his people, we got the Iranian Revolution.

We were quite lucky that the people of Egypt did not take the “Made in USA” labels on the tear gas canisters personally and it remains to be seen how much our lack of democratic zeal will hurt us in future relations with the new government.

I will not argue that supporting democratic movements is easy. Yet the easier decision is not always the right one. In the end, if we are ready to spread democracy by force, we should at the very least be ready to help the seeds of democratic movements grow. It is time we stand behind just rebels in their quest for liberty rather than between them and the freedom they deserve.