Friday, February 18, 2011

Perspectives on Egypt

Having lived in Cairo for a couple of years during the late 90s, I have taken a special interest as events unfolded in recent weeks.  The political oppression was always in evidence, while I lived there, but as well I recall the terrible social discrepancies between poverty and blatantly conspicuous wealth.  Hundreds of poor families lived in the confines of the cemetary outside Cairo.  So witnessing Mubarak's downfall produced no regrets from my part.  But, as usual I do take issue with the manner in which US policy leaders have responded to the events.

Broadly speaking there were two perspectives on events.  The Obama administration was cautious but open to pressure from liberals to meddle in Egyptian affairs, whether through public commentary or direct phone calls to Mubarak.  Conservatives on the other hand were playing the game of realpolitik and appeared eager to support an old ally who ensured regional stability and a peaceful border for Israel.  The conservative appraoch is the most distasteful, since it amounts to direct, imperial meddling.  Presumably conservatives were eager to retain their facilities for rendition in Egypt.  But the liberal perspective is equally misplaced.  When will liberals learn that the US simply does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of independent, sovereign states?  I accept that there was justifiable concern for the safety of the demonstrators.  But that concern should be voiced through enahnced and empowered international institutions such as the UN and not unilaterally.  The US has over the years lost any moral authority it may have had to intervene in support of human rights.  By promoting such intervention liberals are themselves guilty of playing the empire card. 

Now that the uprising has been successful think tank intellectuals and oped authors are trumpeting the victory of democracy in the Middle East.  Some of them even suggest that this event justifies the US occupation of Iraq.  Such thoughts are a travesty of reason.  Personally I am afraid Mubarak's resignation may prove to be a brief interlude on the road to a new dictatorship.  I certainly wish the young activists well, but I would caution them that the struggle has only just begun.  Please don't be naive; you have not yet 'gotten your country back.'  That will only happen when a new constitution is in place, elections have been held and the army has retired to its barracks.  Even then the fledgling democracy will require decades before it becomes established within the social fabric.  Good luck, but keep your eyes wide open and don't place undue confidence in US meddling.  Your goal must be to build Egypt into a prosperous nation that is a fully independent member of the community of nations.

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