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Standing Up for Freedom in Egypt

by Alex Gregor

February 27,2011

As I write this, protests have rocked Egypt for a week. After 30 years of oppression, Egyptians are in the streets, shouting dictator Hosni Mubarak down from power. Mubarak’s ouster seemed impossible a week ago. Perhaps this is the emergence of Egyptian democracy. Maybe street clashes are prelude to months of instability and a lengthy crackdown. The situation changes by the minute.

I feel admiration for courageous protestors, hope for democracy and human rights in Egypt, and gratitude that my own rights are more secure. I am inspired by what’s happening and by what President Obama called “the inevitability of freedom.” At the same time, though, I’m worried about the precariousness of freedom. What will today and the next hold for Egyptians?

I’m deeply skeptical of America’s commitment to human rights, in Egypt and elsewhere. The US response to Egyptian unrest shows the discrepancy between American strategy in the Middle East and American rhetoric about universal values. We might say that we support universal human rights. But our country’s record shows otherwise. We support human rights when they’re not trumped by other priorities.

Since the protests started, the Obama administration has been doing a tricky diplomatic dance, trying to keep one step ahead of what’s unfolding in the streets of Cairo. That’s what any US administration would have done, regardless of party stripes. To his credit, Obama maneuvered skillfully. But as he calls for “an orderly transition,” the President is not siding strongly enough with the people of Egypt. Pro-democracy activists have been beaten, killed, and have disappeared – which means imprisoned and tortured – by Mubarak’s mobs and police forces. Why has Obama not condemned this more strongly?

The President has gambled on the inevitability of Mubarak’s downfall; correctly, it would seem. But if Mubarak had better odds of staying around, we would have propped him up, just as we have done for the last three decades. If you doubt this, look at our history with Egypt, or the first days of these protests. Inconsistencies between State Department and White House statements on Egypt show how officials were figuring the odds on an unpredictable situation, even as the world asked them to speak out.

What does this gambling say about our foreign policy and national values?

To state the obvious, it says that foreign policy is incredibly complicated. Sometimes, there aren’t right answers for difficult problems. Some people justify supporting Mubarak, saying he kept peace with Israel and ensured regional stability. But supporting Mubarak meant tolerating political repression, torture, and rampant corruption in a close ally, just as long as he helped keep the lid on a volatile region. Has our alliance with Egypt kept the region calm? The new answer seems to be no, as unrest in Tunisia and other countries shows. But this was even clear in 2005 when Condoleezza Rice said, “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East – and we achieved neither.”

Our betting on Egypt also says, as Orwell might, that some of our values are more equal than others. Stability > freedom. At least until a people’s sudden movement toward freedom destabilizes the entire equation. Then we move toward their side. It would have been nice if Egypt’s leaders had heeded our calls for increasing political freedoms, which we’ve echoed over the years. But if not, well, there’s that classic line about tin-pot dictators: “Mubarak might be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Egypt shows that moral ambivalence about our foreign policy and values is dangerous. When we support dictators and thugs, we don’t make many friends with the people they oppress. When our involvement in other nations doesn’t help people achieve more freedom, we shouldn’t expect them to be passive. We should expect them to pursue that freedom, one way or another. If we really want to bet on “the inevitability of freedom,” then we would do well to make sure our engagement with the world is consistent with our rhetoric – and that our rhetoric doesn’t implicitly endorse tyrants or downplay the injustices they commit. Obama has started to call Mubarak to account, but it took the courage of thousands in the streets of Cairo before Washington had the courage to speak up.

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