A President's Reflections

We need more Egyptians

Posted on February 10, 2011

Like so many others, I have been mesmerized and inspired by events in Egypt.  Police brutality, armed thugs, and a misinformation campaign have all failed to drive the protesters from Tahrir Square.  Wael Ghonim’s amazing television interview swept away the lies and re-energized the protests (http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/02/09/husain.ghonim/index.html?hpt=T2) and now there are reports of labor strikes and further defections from the ruling elite.

Most exciting are reports today that the Supreme Military Council has been meeting all day and has announced it will “safeguard the people.”  All hinges on the military and there are rumors that Mubarak may actually step down today (http://english.aljazeera.net/).   The Obama administration has been too slow and too cautious in calling for change (backing Suleiman is proving to be a major mistake, for example) and the careful nuances of diplomatic speech are tepid and fall far short of what the Egyptian people need and deserve from us.  We exert tremendous influence on the military, still respected in Egypt, and can put ourselves on the right side of history here after decades of active support for a dictator that tortures and kills his people and leaves half of them in dire poverty.

We should get over our fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Most experts agree that they will garner no more than 20% of the vote in any election, they have agreed to run no candidates, and if we believe what we say about democracy, then let the Egyptian people decide.  As one Egyptian protester said in the Times, the rest of the world watches as the US routinely votes into office extremists who don’t believe in evolution, tolerate gun use that results in 30,000 deaths a year (a civil war in many countries), are willing to invade sovereign nations, would take away women’s rights, justify torture, spy on its citizens, and support a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor.  Should we have a monopoly on the right to elect nut jobs and extremists into office?

The reality is that we have a long and undeniable history of supporting despots with all their attendant sins if we think it is in our “national interest.”  Democrats have done it with the same zeal as Republicans.   The American media is complicit (and I’m talking about the actual news media, not Fox and MSNBC) and the best reporting on the revolts has been in Al Jazeera and The Guardian.  That we cannot get Al Jazeera television in the US, aside from in a handful of cities, says a lot about our own form of media control even as we watch the Mubarak government try to use the Egyptian media to its own ends.   CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the TimesNicholas Kristoff have been notable exceptions and done excellent reporting from Cairo.

Indeed, their accounts have been captivating and inspiring.  Smarts, bravery, self-sacrifice, commitment, humility — they’ve all been on display and in the face of utter brutality.  So much can still go wrong and those with absolute power rarely relinquish it, usually only with much bloodletting, so I hope our government will be bolder and more solidly behind the protesters.  We have an opportunity to help end the repression we have enabled for so long and in doing so, repay just a little the great harm long done to the Egyptian people.

Many years ago I spent time traveling the Egyptian countryside, camping out along the Nile (okay, so many, many years ago).  I remember visiting a village where little kids  — maybe six and seven years old – worked all day weaving textiles in terrible heat.  I watched a young mother hold an infant, swarms of flies landing on its face and eyes, while raw sewage ran along the canal adjacent to her house (a hut, really).  There was no hope alive there.  A man or woman could work as hard as they physically could, for as many hours as possible, and at best that effort might, might, ensure their kids would eat the next day.  That’s all.  They lived only a little bit better than the beasts that shared their space.

When governments ignore the abject poverty of their people while the rich get richer, they deserve to fall.  Take a drive through Flint, Michigan or the war zone that is much of Philadelphia and Baltimore and Detroit.  I was recently at one-day seminar at the Harvard Business School and a presenter put up a slide of gleaming high rise buildings in the distance and a sea of what looked like shanty towns in the foreground and he asked us to identify what city we were seeing.  People offered up Mumbai, Johannesburg, and Jakarta.  It was Detroit.

I am not suggesting we will see protests like those in Cairo (though I sometimes I wonder why we don’t), but when they finally had it, the Egyptians linked arms across income, class, religious, and ethnic lines to demand better for everyone.  When we had it, we invented the Tea Party, Glen Beck, accept the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor (definition of insanity: poor Americans voting to roll back inheritance taxes), and punish the poor and immigrants.  We need more Egyptians.

2 thoughts on “We need more Egyptians

  1. Mark Friedman says:

    There’s a lot of pain today in America, and in other parts of the globe.

    ‘Peace is not breaking out all over”, income and wealth inequality continues growing, and with great uncertainty over the outcome, nations are mostly doing the austerity bit or borrowing like crazy.
    I’m underwhelmed with confidence!

    A fire was lit (horribly) in Tunisia and it’s still burning in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. But, when I look outside my window onto Main Street USA, I see no populist rage such as we have in Egypt today.

    The Vietnam War and Civil Rights brought many Americans to the streets in protest and then there was change. I’m just not sure what current issue might bring Americans to the streets again.

    I just want my MTV!

  2. Matt C says:

    I applaud the unabated determination and peaceful actions of the Egyptian people (I am speaking to the protesters as well as the military personnel) to stand up for their freedoms and finally drive their autocratic leader, Mubarak, out of office. I also commend President Obama for his patience and willingness to let the Egyptians work through their own problems and not intervene. I have no doubt that the US could have flexed it’s political, economic and military muscle and have played more of a role in supporting the Egyptian people, but frankly, they didn’t need, or want, our help. I take our [in]action as a clear sign that we have learned our lesson and recognize the potential implications of sticking our nose where it doesn’t belong, no matter how good our intentions are.
    Now that it has been released that Mubarak has officially resigned, if anybody were to step in and help Egypt transition its government to a democratic state, I believe it should be the UN, not the US. Given the US’s recent history of intervening in such situations, discretion and tactfulness really isn’t our strong suit. The UN Secretary-General should appoint a Special Representative to serve as Transitional-Administrator to Egypt (See: Sérgio Vieira de Mello’s role in East Timor http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/past/etimor/untaetR/etreg2.htm).

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