x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Egypt shows that there can be no stability without dignity

Americans watching events in Egypt couldn't help but think of their own revolution and fight against tryanny.

The only word of Arabic spoken by most American TV reporters over the past decade has been "jihad", but over the past week a new word has entered the cable news lexicon: "tahrir". It's de rigeur for any TV report from Cairo's main plaza -where tens of thousands of protestors have braved sticks, stones and gunfire to stand fast in demanding that the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stand down - to note that its name, Maydan Tahrir, translates as Liberation Square.

Liberation, aka freedom, is the most prized virtue in the American national mythology - who knew that Arabic even had a word for it, let alone that Arabs were willing to fight and die for it? Arabs, many of Washington's experts had long opined, are prone to irrational extremism, and responded only to the big stick and the strongman leader willing to wield it to keep them in line. Better to back strongmen willing to do US bidding.

But as the sun rose over Tahrir Square on Thursday after a terrifying night through which protesters had to defend their revolution from a violent backlash by the regime's enforcers, another quintessentially American image came to mind: the opening verse of the US national anthem, recalling early American defenders fighting off a ferocious night attack by British bombs and rockets, knowing they had survived by seeing their flag still flying by dawn's early light.

The song honours the fighting spirit of those who refuse to live on their knees, risking everything by facing tyranny on their feet, armed with little more than their will to be free. The many Americans transfixed by the heroism of ordinary Egyptians fighting for the right to choose their leaders could not have missed the connection with their own national story.

But for Washington, the past two weeks have been a nightmare. Even as Egyptians rose against him, Mr Mubarak was hailed by US officials as a bulwark of regional stability, whose removal could be troubling. What was notable in all of the tributes to Mr Mubarak by western leaders was that none had any reference to Egyptian governance; they were all about his responsiveness to US priorities. Mr Mubarak kept the peace with Israel. He even maintained the siege of Gaza. He sent troops to the 1991 war to eject Iraq from Kuwait. And his mukhbarat has been a critical ally, often assigned the dirty work that US agencies are politically unable to undertake in the "war on terror".

Some in Washington were blunt. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the esteemed Council on Foreign Relations warned that a democratic government in Egypt could include the Muslim Brotherhood, which might result in Egypt "following a foreign policy independent of, or even at odds with the United States - and that would be a huge problem."

The prospect that a country's foreign policy may be more responsive to the will of its own citizens than to the needs of a foreign power is a problem? That idea would outrage Americans if applied at home, and yet here was their political elite telling them that the possibility of Egyptians deciding their own foreign policy might be a reason to oppose the fight for freedom on Tahrir Square.

The idea that invoking the Muslim Brotherhood could change the debate also reflects Washington's and Israel's priorities, rather than Egypt's. Even the secular liberals involved in the democracy movement make clear that the organisation will have a role in Egyptian democracy, and are not threatened by that prospect. One opposition leader, Dr Mohammed ElBaradei, even tried to help Americans understand by comparing the Brotherhood to Christian conservatism in US politics.

If Washington's reticence to embrace Egypt's democracy movement seemed strange to Americans recognising their own values in the fight for freedom from tyranny, that's because as Salman Rushdie once wrote of the British, they don't understand their own history because so much of it happened overseas. Mr Mubarak is a perfect example of how values deemed sacrosanct at home are a marginal priority when it comes to backing foreign leaders willing to do US bidding.

The outcome of Egypt's uprising is far from settled, and the balance of power suggests a messy compromise may be on the cards - not over the rights of Egyptians to decide for themselves, but over the pace and terms of the transition. Even if the protest movement has been too strong for the regime to crush, the regime remains too strong to simply be toppled, and too many ordinary Egyptians want an end to the chaos, disruption and uncertainty of the past two weeks. The Obama administration will hope to keep as much continuity as possible through the change, but they have also accepted for the first time - at least they say that they have - that the Egyptian people have the same right as Americans do to choose their own government. And that's a profound shift.

It happened because Egyptians stood up, tearing up three decades of conventional wisdom in Washington, introduced themselves to the world, and demanded to be treated with respect and dignity. In doing so, they delivered a mortal blow to the principle that Washington's and Israel's needs trump those of Egyptians in deciding who should rule Egypt.

That the foreign policy of an Egyptian democracy would be independent of and often at odds with Washington will certainly be a problem for the US foreign policy establishment - just as Turkey's similar shift has been. A democratic Egypt would be less willing to tolerate, much less enable Israel's dispossession and humiliation of the Palestinians. But what Tahrir Square has shown is that there can be no stability in the Middle East without Arab dignity. Rather than hoping to find continuity via a new strongman to succeed Mr Mubarak, the US and its allies might be better advised to rethink outmoded understandings and expectations of the Arab peoples.


Tony Karon is a New York based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron