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Two weekends ago, I was at a wedding, and another guest mentioned that he was being “good,” and honoring his wife’s request that he not check his Blackberry or Twitter feed. Knowing that the Ravens-Steelers NFL Playoff game was underway, I asked him if he wanted to check it because he cared about Baltimore or Pittsburgh.
“You have Tunisia in your fantasy league?”
This guest, a Middle East policy wonk at think tank, told me that his friends at the State Department were running around trying to get up to speed on the sudden changes in Tunisia; he chuckled and said he had told them that today they were desperately trying to understand Tunisia, tomorrow they would be taking credit for what happened, and within a short time, most of them and most of Washington will have forgotten about Tunisia.
Here we are, two weeks later, we’ve transfixed by a sudden uprising in another North African country. U.S. influence over events in Tunisia was negligible, and probably on par with the amount of U.S. interest in the long-term outlook for Tunisian politics. Obviously, U.S. influence over what happens in Egypt is limited, but it includes the roughly $1 billion in annual aid and a traditionally close – perhaps too close – relationship with a regime that suppresses dissent, controls the media, and does not hold free and fair elections.
The position of the government of the United States of America should never be to say to the side that’s using batons on demonstrators, “attaboy.”
The folks in the streets in Egypt include plenty of backers of the Muslim Brotherhood, aspiring Islamists, and garden-variety bad folk. But reports indicate the crowds include a large number of previously apolitical Egyptians who are fed up with three decades of governance that were not merely oppressive, but incompetent. The Egyptian economy has never thrived; you know the usual figures – 40 percent get by on less than $2 per day. But when you pile rising wheat prices on an impoverished country, ordinary folks find the usual poor governance untenable. They have to eat, and have to believe there’s some small possibility of their lives getting better someday. Hosni Mubarak and his regime have worn out a decades-long benefit of the doubt from a people who historically were inclined to have tea, complain, and shrug rather than burn cars and take on riot police.
If you support the right of American Tea Partiers to gather together and protest their government, I don’t quite understand why you would deny the average Egyptian the same right. It’s not like angry Egyptians can write a letter to the editor or vote out their representatives to get better results. Even if the protesters are anti-Israeli, want a more Islamist government, and can repeat every bit of anti-American propaganda they’ve ever heard, who are we to say to them, “You deserve no better than Mubarak”?
As of this writing, the Mubarak regime appears to be tottering. He’s 82 years old and has had health problems. Even if he survives this challenge to his power. Mubarak will be gone someday; even if we preserve the status quo, we can’t preserve it for too much longer. And the status quo isn’t that great for American interests (when we’re the perpetual scapegoat in Egypt’s media).
It was shameful for Obama to hesitate and dawdle before endorsing the Iranian protesters, and it creates the awkward precedent for the Obama administration speaking sooner, and more positively, about protests against the government of an ally. But in the end, why would an American president tout the virtues of a regime that shoots unarmed protesters? Let Mubarak fall. He’s had his chance, and he has failed the Egyptian people.