At the time of writing, Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak is still clinging to power in the face of a popular uprising with the support of his ally, the U.S. government. However, whatever the outcome of this standoff, the revolt of the Egyptian people has loosened his monomaniacal grip on the country once and for all, and this is no mean feat in itself. I am among those who welcome this as a historic crossroads for the people not only of Egypt but of the Middle East and North African region as well.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have signed two petitions, one from U.S. academics urging President Barack Obama to “move beyond rhetoric to support the democratic movement sweeping over Egypt” on www.accuracy.org, and an international one calling on all governments to join their own citizens in showing “solidarity with the Egyptian people” on www.avaaz.org. I am aware that petitional activism cannot change the structures of power, but it is sometimes the only way for conscientious objectors to rupture the silence that accompanies injustice.
The petitions refer to a movement for democracy in Egypt, but it is important to know what democracy has meant for Egyptians thus far. For 30 years, Mubarak has ruled over the country, like a Pharaoh, but through the politics of the ballot box. This nominal democracy has been underwritten by repression at the hands of a notorious (not so) secret police at home and the support of the U.S. government abroad. In effect, in Egypt and many neighboring countries electoral politics has meant not civil or political rights and liberties, but rule by corrupt and often brutal dictators who have become lifers. There is just no way to get rid of them since they win every election by a miraculous landslide. That is why people have finally taken to the streets in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, the Sudan and, earlier, in Tunisia and Iran, because they are fed up with a system that has enabled dynastic control on power, state torture, economic stagnation and other attendant social ills.
In Tunisia, where popular revolts recently ended the 25-year rule of President Ben Ali, unemployment is at 20 percent while the state employs one “police officer for every 40 adults,” according to The Nation. What people are fighting for are jobs, justice, resources and pluralistic political systems, but U.S. governments are leery of such systems because they fear instability and the possibility of “Islamist” takeovers. In spite of their partisanship in domestic politics, Democratic and Republican governments have always presented a united front to the so-called Arab world, and what they want in this “world” is not real democracy but men in charge who can ensure “stability.” In other words, men who can protect the U.S.’s geostrategic interests even if it is at the cost of their own people’s rights. Hence Mubarak’s portrayal as a “moderate” Arab leader and the U.S.’s support of him at this late hour, even as Obama continues to pay lip service to the will of the Egyptian people. The writing is on the wall for the U.S.’s man in Cairo and all its other men in the region, those sundry kings and dictators who are scurrying to announce reforms and/or their decision not to run for office again. May the days of tyrants everywhere be numbered!
Asma Barlas is a professor and program director for the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.