The Irresistible Spread Of Democracy: North Africa and the Middle-East erupt

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Barack Obama, Cairo, Crisis in Egypt, Current Affairs, Current Events, Democracy, Dictatorship, Egypt, Freedom, History, Hosni Mubarak, Political, Politics, Tahrir Square

Astonishing, Monumental, Earth-shattering – it takes the biggest words of our respective vocabularies to describe the events of the past few weeks as millions of people took to the streets across North Africa and the Middle-East in a collective demand for democracy of a proportion not seen since 1989. It’s been difficult to keep up with the constantly changing situation as each day seems to have brought about a new, unexpected development in a revolution that has caught most of us in the West completely by surprise: Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidene Ben Ali has resigned; Yemeni president Ali Abdulluh Saleh has promised not to run for re-election; Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ended a long-running state of emergency; King Abdullah of Jordan has sacked his cabinet and promised reforms.

And then, of course, there’s Egypt. For the past two weeks the entire world has been transfixed by events in the land of the Pyramids as its people took to the streets in immense numbers to protest the autocratic rule of its long-time president, Hosni Mubarak. We have seen young people, who have known no leader but Mubarak, come out and demand their democratic rights. This has caused a dilemma for the Obama administration: Mubarak has been supported over the past thirty years by various American governments, in spite of strong evidence of a host of human rights abuses, in order to maintain “stability” in the region. However, as the administration had openly supported the Tunisian revolution, it would have been incredibly hypocritical to turn around and deny the same rights to the people of Egypt. So initially, there was a period of fence-sitting, with Hilary Clinton re-affirming Egypt’s status as an ally, while avoiding criticism of the demonstrators and calling for engagement with their wishes. But as time has passed and the crackdown has become more aggressive, the US government has, in fairness, become more vocal in their calls for the protection of protesters and in demanding democratic reforms in public and possibly more in private. They seem ready to cut Hosni Mubarak loose and take a chance on the ability and desire of the Egyptian people to create a reasonable, democratic nation.

But of course the real heroes of this story are the brave Tahrir Square Revolutionaries and their comrades in Alexandria, Suez and all over Egypt. They have risked life and limb (and tragically many have paid the ultimate price) simply to claim the basic rights we in the West take for granted and sometimes even treat with contempt. There is, of course, a certain apprehension on this side of the world about what the future holds. Much of it is based on overblown prejudices about the Muslim world but some of it is understandable – it would be naive to deny the existence of elements within Egypt who virulently oppose the idea of a secular, democratic state and one of the major challenges for reformists will be to successfully make their case to those beyond the streets of Cairo. That said, it would be the ultimate cruelty to deny the young people of Egypt the right to determine their future after what they’ve been through to bring themselves to the brink of democracy and would probably set  back relations in the Middle-East by at least a generation. So Western nations should take the leap of faith and give full, unconditional backing to the democratic aspirations of the people of Egypt. They deserve it for a host of reasons but mostly because, in the face of stubborn and often violent opposition, they came out to demand their rights. They witnessed the tumultuous upheaval in Tunisia and they came out in their thousands; the internet was shut down and Mubarak offered meaningless “concessions” and they came out in their tens of thousands; they were attacked by stone-throwing, horse-riding, whip-wielding thugs and the press was attacked and they came out in their hundreds of thousands. This is their time to attain that most precious commodity…freedom.

  1. Mary Donnery says:

    Thanks Sam for this meaningful and timely analysis of a historic moment…

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