It took until Hosni Mubarak was safely in Sharm El Sheikh and newly free Egyptians were celebrating in Tahrir Square before President Obama finally came out firmly for democracy in Egypt, no qualifiers attached.
Obama's words were eloquent indeed; even more so than his 2009 speech in Cairo. As he explained, what the world had witnessed the previous 18 days was truly "history taking place. The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard. And Egypt will never be the same... for Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day."
The president went on to detail a set of expectations: protecting the rights of Egypt's citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free.
Those expectations are entirely in line with the core demands of the organizers of the protests-turned-revolution. For that, Obama deserves credit, although at least some should be held in reserve until we see how much pressure his administration is willing to put on the military to ensure that it carries out a full transition to democracy.
What's more, in changing themselves, Mr. Obama declared that "Egyptians have inspired us." They did so in good measure, he rightly explained, through understanding their full worth, as equal members of the larger human history and community. "Most people have discovered in the last few days that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore. Ever."
The Meaning of Inspiration
Yet this inspiration is already being put to the test all across the region as the protests spread like a "freedom virus," as one Cairene taxi driver put it to me the day before I left Cairo.
When the Bahraini government brutally suppressed the protesters in its own version of Tahrir Square, Pearl Circle, the administration refused forcefully to demand an immediate end to the attacks. The reason why is obvious. If the U.S. is Egypt's primary patron, in Bahrain it is among the ruling family's biggest tenants, as the country is home to the Fifth Fleet, one of the U.S. military's most important naval armadas, crucial to protecting Persian Gulf shipping and projecting U.S. power against Iran.
But while Bahrain has long been depicted as relatively moderate compared with its Salafi neighbor, Saudi Arabia, the reality is that the country is repressive and far from free, as citizens have almost no ability to transform their government, which according to the State Department "restricts civil liberties, freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and some religious practices."
In Libya, the administration's words have been stronger, in line with its lack of significant non-oil interests in the country. But where the U.S. has stepped up, Europeans have stepped down, especially Italy, Libya's former colonial ruler with strong economic and security interests in the country. And Libya is an easy call. Far more telling is the silence as the Egyptian military begins dragging its feet on moving quickly towards ending emergency laws and freeing political prisoners; as well as the continued support of the Saudis, and the more 'moderate' monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan.
In the wake of Egypt, where many people harbor resentment against the administration for its lack of early support for the democracy movement, what can Obama do now? Can he in good conscience acquiesce to the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protesters so soon after his eloquent words and late coming to supporting the Egyptian revolution?
The larger question is: What is more essential to American security today -- convenient bases for its ships, planes and troops across the Middle East, or a full transition to democracy throughout the region?
Al Qaeda 'failure'
The answer is clearly the latter, as evidenced by the fact that America's two primary antagonists in the Middle East, al Qaeda and the Iranian government, have seen their standing sink in proportion to the rise of the pro-democracy movements.
In any war, cold or hot, propaganda is crucial, and here it is impossible to lose sight of the fact that al Qaeda has had little if anything to say about the Egyptian revolution precisely because it was a massive nonviolent jihad that succeeded miraculously where a decade of al Qaeda blood and vitriol have miserably failed.
As for Iran, the government's rhetorical support for the Egyptian revolution while it continues to suppress its own democracy movement is clearly emptying the Iranian regime of any remaining credibility as an alternative to the U.S.-dominated order.
In this sense, the success -- so far -- of the Egyptian revolution has presented Obama with a unique window of opportunity to forcefully advocate and press for the same kind of democratic transition across the Middle East and North Africa.
The signs last week were somewhat optimistic, as the president warned all regional leaders that they should "get ahead of the wave of protest" by moving towards democracy as quickly as possible. Yet Obama refused to mention Bahrain by name in his press conference, even as the government was cracking down on the protesters. And then when Bahrain was mentioned directly, the "D" word, democracy, was once again missing, in favor of the usual "haki fadi," or meaningless talk about "reform" and similar half-measures.
Once again, the mantra is, in Obama's words, that "each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can't dictate how they run their societies," an utterly meaningless declaration since it contradicts the very advocacy of democracy that the president has made out of the other side of his mouth.
Are the United States and its European allies incapable of learning from mistakes in the immediate past ?
From Tunis and Egypt to Israel
Not a single Israeli flag was burned (as far as everyone I know from Tahrir can recall) during the 18 days of protest, but while the Israeli occupation remained tangential to the protests, one of the main sources of initial solidarity and coalition building among the young Egyptians who ultimately helped organize the revolution was the outbreak of the second intifada, which led to the formation of a very active branch in Cairo of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (it's worth noting here that almost no mainstream media analysis of the roots of the youth movement mentions this fact).
Indeed, after I ran into organizers wearing "End the Occupation" t-shirts, it became clear how similar, and interlinked, were the Israeli occupation and the Mubarak "system's" (as the protesters referred to them in their numerous chants to bring it down) occupation of Egypt.
The reality remains that on its own terms, the Israeli occupation (or rather double occupation, as increasing numbers of Palestinians describe their lives under PA/Hamas and Israeli rule) remains among the most repressive and brutal in the contemporary world, and perhaps its most destabilizing.
And, as with Mubarak, the United States is the most important supporter and enabler of the occupation's continued presence against the wishes of the vast majority of the people forced to live under it. (Indeed, while the U.S. presses for Security Council action because of the mass murder by Gaddafi's mercenaries, the U.S. supported a (so far) similar if not greater level of destruction by Israel during the last Gaza war.)
And here, as the Palestine Papers released by Al Jazeera reveal, the words and deeds of the Obama administration have run roughshod over its rhetorical commitment to greater democracy and openness.
They reveal that senior members of the administration directly threatened Palestinians leaders with a cut-off in aid should they not follow American policies or even resign in response to continued Israeli settlement expansion and other violations of the Oslo agreements.
The Obama administration needs to tell us if that is still U.S. policy, and if so why democracy is suddenly okay for Egyptians and perhaps even Bahrainis, but not for Palestinians.
We also need to know how Obama will respond if the Palestinians take up the mantle of Cairo, or Manama and march en masse to dismantle sections of the West Bank wall or the Erez crossing in Gaza, in defiance of both Israeli and Palestinian political commands.
And the tests don't get any easier. Bahrain is child's play compared not merely to Yemen, which is a crucial base of al Qaeda (or so it is claimed) but even more so for Saudi Arabia, whose absolutely repressive regime is among the worst in almost every category possible, in direct proportion to its immense oil reserves and wealth.
Democracy without hypocrisy
One of the most fascinating and uplifting aspects of Tahrir Square was the utter lack of hypocrisy within its confines. Authoritarian societies are by definition filled with double-talk, lies of various shades and a broader climate of hypocrisy which becomes the grease, however rancid, that allows the wheels of society to turn, even if they wind up spinning in their tracks for decades.
In finally supporting the Tahrir experiment, President Obama was, in effect, pledging to end decades of American hypocrisy in its policies towards the Middle East and larger Muslim world.
But in order to live up to this promise he will have to develop one set of policies for all the peoples and countries of the region. And doing that will demand an even more costly break with the past, putting old allies at arm's length until they respect the rights of their peoples while embracing, however tentatively, groups that once seemed more easily characterized as, if not quite foes, then at least untrustworthy partners in securing American interests.
Obama concluded his remarks celebrating the emergence of a new Egypt by saying that the revolution "forever more will remind us of the Egyptian people, of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country and in doing so changed the world."
Let's hope in changing the world, Egyptians haven't left the United States and other major powers too far behind.
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