February 15, 2011

Giving democracy a chance

Democracy in the Middle East must be a top priority for the U.S.

I knew the revolution had arrived when it showed up on my Facebook newsfeed. I spent the summer of 2009 in Egypt, and the friends I made there had only hinted at their dissatisfaction with the government. Suddenly, these sentiments were boiling over. Profile pictures changed to photos of protestors, or big red Xs photoshopped over Hosni Mubarak’s sneering face. Statuses called for the overthrow of the government and advertized protest locations and times.

Before I could even get a response from my summer host brother about his family’s safety, Egypt vanished from the web. The internet had been shut down completely across the entire country. Nearly a week went by in infuriating, absolute silence.

Then, just as quickly as they had gone, my friends reappeared online. One had suffered a bad leg injury. My host brother sent me a message about how he and other youths in the neighborhood had set up a watch and were fighting looters daily with batons, knives, and “sometimes guns.”

As the people of Egypt attempt to transition to democracy over the coming months and years, the best I, or any other American, can do to express solidarity is to demand a change in our foreign policy. This crisis, the one that preceded it in Tunisia, and the smoldering anger throughout the Middle East at dictatorships, is largely a result of the United States’ misdirected goals in the region.

In the name of stability, we have propped up nearly every regime from Rabat to Riyadh. It doesn’t matter if it is to ensure the supply of oil or to fight terrorism. It’s morally reprehensible, damaging to both the people of the Arab World and the interests of the United States. It must stop, and we must be the generation to stop it.

Believe it or not, the United States is not perceived as a lost cause in the Middle East. President Obama’s address to the Muslim world at Cairo University in June 2009 was a major step in repairing relations. According to opinion polls taken before the protests, Egyptians went from having a mostly negative to a mostly positive view of America at this time. I certainly never imagined, arriving a month later, that strangers would wave to me and smile while shouting my president’s name.

But positive steps like Obama’s speech are undermined when an Egyptian fighting for basic rights can pick up a tear gas canister hurled at him and find “Made in America” stamped on the bottom. It smacks of hypocrisy.

I understand the fear that democracy in the Middle East would lead to extremists seizing power. However, much of the appeal of groups like Al Qaeda comes from their ability to point out the sickening contradiction between American ideals and actions. Take away this moral gap and you take away their next recruitment video. In the long term, supporting democracy and civil society will result in much less favorable conditions for terrorist groups.

The democratic revolution in the Middle East is still in its infancy, but it is here and it’s real. The resignation of President Mubarak on Friday, which would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago, may prove to be the moment when the tide turned for Middle Eastern dictatorship. After far too much ambiguity from Washington, it was encouraging to hear President Obama finally express full-throated support for the revolution—but it should have come before Mubarak was out the door. As we move forward, we cannot be seen as conspiring with local regimes to keep them in power, as we were accused of in Egypt.

Changing the status quo in our foreign policy will not be easy, nor will it be comfortable, but it is necessary. Time after time when this country finds itself on the side of the oppressor, that situation winds up blowing up in our faces. It happened in much of Latin America, it happened in Iran, and without careful diplomacy, it could happen again in the Middle East. The 21st century belongs to democracy, not despotism. America cannot afford to pick the losing side.

David Kaner is a first-year in the College.