Neoconservative supporters of the war in Iraq are already claiming credit for the revolution in Egypt, calling it a victory for the Bush Administration’s so-called “freedom agenda.” But let’s be clear, the pro-democracy movement in Tahrir Square has much more in common with the grassroots, bottom-up spirit of the Obama campaign than the messianic, barrel-of-a-gun foreign policy pushed by George W. Bush.
Would the Egyptian youth have taken to the streets during the invasion of Iraq? Only to denounce the imperialism and recklessness of the United States. It was only after the election of Barack Obama—and his repositioning of the United States as a friend to the Arab world, most notably during his visionary speech in Cairo in June 2009—that pro-democracy activists in Tehran and Cairo saw a friendly ally in the United States.
In his piece for The Nation today, “How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak,” former Obama campaign blogger Sam Graham-Felsen tells the story of how an Egyptian human rights activists and blogger came across a comic book from the 1950s that told Martin Luther King’s story. She translated it into Arabic, and pro-democracy activists used the nonviolent tactics of King and Gandhi in their protests in Tunisia and Egypt. The Obama campaign provided a more recent example of how the seemingly unexpected—the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the leader of the free world—could become a reality.
New technology, of the sort pioneered by the Obama campaign, wasn’t a be-all-and-end-all for Tunisian and Egyptian activists, but it was an essential organizing tool. After all, the Obama campaign proved that online and offline organizing—using My.Barackobama.com, for example, to figure out how to most effectively turn out voters in Cleveland, Ohio—could form a powerful combination when fused together. Writes Graham-Felsen:
The Internet has helped activists weave history into the present, to promote examples of nonviolent movements that have succeeded elsewhere, learn from those that failed and rapidly evolve their nonviolent tactics as their own movement progresses.
That’s not to say that the Obama administration should claim credit for the bravery of the Egyptian people, nor did it handle the Egyptian crisis perfectly. Over the past two weeks, Obama’s team vacillated between supporting democracy and autocracy, as I wrote this week, and couldn’t decide if “stability”—the buzzword for supporting autocrats in the region—trumped the demands of the protesters. In the end, the incoherence and arrogance of Hosni Mubarak’s speech on Thursday night forced the administration’s hand and gave the president no choice but to push for his exit. But it was Obama’s initial response to the uprising on February 1 that set the tone for American foreign policy:
Over the last few days, the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom.
To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren.
Who knows what will happen from here, and whether the Egyptian military regime can be trusted to preside over a real transition to democracy? On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama often invoked a famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (who was paraphrasing nineteenth-century abolitionist Theodore Parker): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That vision is especially hard to comprehend in a region dominated by tyranny, but today, the Egyptian people proved that it still rings true.