Egypt: History is Being Made—Without the U.S.

Source: The Progressive

This year may very well prove to be the most memorable in modern Arab history. Too bad that the United States is on the wrong side.

I have written a soon-to-be-published book on Islam and nonviolence that deals with mass protest in the Middle East, but Tunisian and Egyptian youth have already made the book a bit dated by deciding that this year was the year they had enough.

Tunisia itself was momentous. It was the first time in the recent past that an Arab dictator had been toppled by people power. But as significant as this was, Tunisia is a relatively small country and on the margins of the Arab world, geographically and culturally.

Not so Egypt. The most populous Arab country has an importance—culturally and historically—that cannot be overstated. From the Al-Azhar seminary, the most respected Sunni religious institution, to Egyptian cinema, the most popular in the area, the country exerts an influence that other Arab countries can only dream of. If tiny Tunisia made its presence felt through the region by the power of a good example, imagine the tremors that the fall of Hosni Mubarak will generate.

That’s why the U.S. role is so disappointing. It has done itself no credit by its mealy-mouthedness—alienating countless Arabs in the process. The United States was with Tunisian tyrant Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali till almost the last minute. President Obama made no mention of the brave Egyptian protesters in his State of the Union speech. Vice President Joe Biden said he doesn’t consider Hosni Mubarak a dictator. As recently as Friday evening, Obama avoided asking Mubarak to step down. (Do expect, though, that U.S. calls for democratic change will become more emphatic if Mubarak’s situation becomes more precarious.)

Why all this American hesitancy about siding with the average Egyptian? Egypt under Anwar Sadat signed a peace deal with Israel, and the overriding imperative is to have a government in place that will respect that agreement. That is the main reason that the United States showers $1 billion-plus on the Mubarak dictatorship each year.

But if it’s not Egypt, then it is Tunisia and the U.S. desire for a reliable pro-West and pro-free market ally. Or Saudi Arabia and the U.S. need for cheap oil. There is always an economic or geostrategic imperative that results in the United States pitted against, as Martin Luther King prophetically said decades ago, “the shirtless and barefoot people.” And this is a bipartisan venture, involving successive Republican and Democratic Administrations.

It’s still just January, and the Arab youth are already making 2011 a landmark year. If only the world’s lone superpower was with them.