Egypt faces a crossroads today. Tens of thousands of people have flooded the streets of its cities to protest the repression of the Egyptian government. Despite years of exposure to the West, the Mubarak regime continues to refuse its people a voice in how they are ruled. Lacking accountability, the Egyptian government has failed to deal with such issues as corruption, high unemployment, an unjust court system, and other problems for which a democratic polity would demand solutions.
In response to the protests, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement, noting that, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
Those who watch this video of Egyptians braving the advance of a water cannon–equipped riot truck and accompanying security forces are unlikely to conclude that the regime’s response thus far is an appropriate avenue for answering “the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
The images from the streets of Cairo remind one of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and of the nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Serbia. Today is an inflection point for Egypt and for democracy advocates around the world. Now is not the time for equivocation. Instead, today’s events present an opportunity for President Obama’s administration to assert the U.S. government’s role as the preeminent defender of freedom in the world.
Strong rhetoric from the president in his State of the Union speech tonight could correct the passive response from Secretary Clinton. It would do much for demonstrators in the streets of Cairo to hear the leader of the free world speaking on their behalf. Official American support for pro-democratic demonstrators can also make it less likely that either the current autocratic regime or a negative, non-democratic alternative such as the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood will gain additional influence.
The president and his administration could affirm their support for democracy and civil liberties in Egypt by immediately taking the following substantive and symbolic actions:
1. Offer immediate rhetorical support for demonstrators and condemn the crackdown by police and security forces across Egypt. Reports from social media indicate that live ammunition may have been used in Alexandria, an action that should be investigated and condemned by the international community if true.
2. Demand the unblocking of Twitter and any other social and mobile media censored by the Egyptian government.
3. Triple current democracy aid to Egypt, which was cut roughly in half between the administrations of presidents Bush and Obama. The additional assistance should go directly to nongovernmental groups, without any interference by the Egyptian state. Currently, the regime can vet the vast majority of democracy aid.
4. Cut economic aid to the Egyptian government by $100 million as an indication of Washington’s displeasure with the regime’s treatment of the Egyptian people. Officials could reinforce such a move by stating that further cuts will be made if the Egyptian government continues to act in an undemocratic manner leading up to the presidential elections in September. The U.S. should make clear that the continuance of aid to the Egyptian government rests upon a free and democratic conduct of the September elections.
President Obama’s primary foreign policy initiative in the Middle East has been an effort to speak to the people of the region. The President even chose Egypt as the platform for his address to the Muslim world, stating that:
America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
The president articulated this sentiment more succinctly in his Inaugural Address:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
Today in Cairo, the people President Obama sought to reach are exercising their rights as human beings. They need the president’s support without delay.
— Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.