For those of us who have grown up in dictatorship, the protests that have ignited throughout the Arab world feel like the fulfillment of a great promise. This promise was made to our parents and grandparents, to all those who fought for independence: that we would have the right to decide our future. Instead, our leaders delivered us into a world of silence and fear and told us that we must watch what we say and watch what we do. Our institutions were undermined or dismantled, our political parties were stifled or co-opted, their members disappeared or neutralized. And whenever we looked to the West for help, its presidents and prime ministers spoke with forked tongues, one moment lecturing us on democracy and another offering support to our dictators.
The young man who started this winter of discontent was Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia. He could afford neither the required cart license nor the bribes the police demanded whenever they saw him. The police harassed him until, in his despair, he set himself on fire in front of the government office in Sidi Bouzid. Is it any wonder that the unemployed college graduates took to the streets to demand change, or that professionals and trade unions joined the protests? After all, Bouazizi was not part of any political party, he was not brandishing a sign, he was not even asking for democratic reforms; he was simply trying to make a living. And if he could end up like this, so could all of them. Tunisia is full of Mohamed Bouazizis.
As it turned out, the entire Arab world is full of Mohamed Bouazizis. In Egypt, his name was Khaled Said, and he was a 28-year-old businessman. Last June, Said was sitting in a cybercafe in Alexandria when the police came in and demanded everyone’s papers. He asked the officers why, and soon after he lay dead, his face smashed against the staircase of a nearby building, his cries for help unanswered because any attempt to meddle in a police matter would automatically result in arrest and torture. Over the following weeks, young Egyptians staged protests demanding justice for this man, protests that were repressed by President Mubarak’s police thugs.
But the Tunisians’ ouster of President Ben Ali galvanized the Egyptian youth, whose uprising on January 25 was the release, at long last, of the fear and silence that had been bottled up for so long. Year after year, they had heard American presidents deliver hypocritical lectures on democracy while giving $1.3 billion in military aid to Mubarak, their torturer in chief. The tear-gas canisters, the guns and bullets, the communication systems and police trucks—all the tools of repression that young Egyptians face—were quite likely bought with American aid. After three decades of empty promises, the young people realized that Mubarak was not going to reform, that what happened to Khaled Said could happen to each one of them, and that the time for change had finally come.
In their struggle for self-determination, the people of Egypt undoubtedly know they have the support of other Arab citizens. But they also know that the Obama administration is watching these events with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. In an interview with PBS, the vice president called Mubarak an “ally” and refused to characterize him as a dictator. And the president said that the United States “will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people” while also being “committed to working with [Egypt’s] government.” What Obama failed to acknowledge was that these two sides were no longer bridgeable and, of the two, it was the regime that had to go.
For the moment, it seems that Obama has chosen to side with the regime. The sudden appointment of former intelligence head Omar Suleiman as vice president and of air force chief Ahmed Shafik as prime minister looks like a behind-the-scenes compromise to replace Mubarak with Mubarak Lite. This “new” regime would probably continue to participate in rendition programs, maintain the siege on Gaza and generally do what is expected of an “ally” who is also not a "dictator." In order to get support for these two men, some politicians and pundits are pushing a narrative that, without Mubarak or Mubarak Lite, Egypt will be run by a band of religious fanatics who might threaten the Camp David Accords and start a regional conflict. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, for instance, bluntly asked one of his guests whether Al Qaeda might exploit the Egyptian uprising.
But it is useful to remember that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is the product of the most pro-American regime the Arab world has ever known—that of Anwar el-Sadat. A pro-American dictator is not a guarantee of protection from extremism; more often than not, his tyranny creates the very radicalism he was supposed to stop. The future of Egypt looks uncertain. What is certain is that siding with a repressive regime against the Egyptian people, especially against young Egyptians, will turn these fears of extremism into a reality.
It is also important to remember that the uprising in Egypt is led by broad secular forces, and not by any established political parties. The Muslim Brotherhood did not instigate these protests, nor did the smaller opposition groups. The people who are tearing down the pictures of Mubarak from the walls of Egypt want real change. So the Obama administration must decide whether it is willing to work with a new generation of independent-minded Arabs or whether it will cede this role to other world powers. But either way, it must accept, once and for all, that the future of Egypt is in the hands of the Egyptian people.