There has certainly been no problem in filling the agenda of the 24-hour news channels in recent days. All that was needed was to place cameras atop high buildings surrounding Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, and capture the minute-by-minute activities of young protesters demanding the “return of their government” and the “restoration of their constitutional powers.” Once again the Middle East seems to be headed toward full boil.
There is one aspect of the current uprising that has become quite fascinating to me. It centers around the role of the United States, and whether or not we will be able to maintain the image that we claim to project to the rest of the world and indeed that we claim to reveal to them by example. When we stand proudly upon the claim that ours is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and we by word and deed encourage other countries all over the world to adopt the same stance, are we willing to follow through? We discover time and again when it comes to the often troubled Middle East that issues there never are so “cut and dried.” Often we find ourselves in a “Do as we say do, but not necessarily in a do as we do” position.
Almost daily “man on the street” interviews from Cairo have sounded a theme quite familiar to Americans. More than a few protesters have vowed to “take back our government,” and others among their number have demanded that Egypt’s constitution be restored and followed as originally intended. And, yes, there have been the signs and placards containing inflammatory language and evil caricatures of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The authoritarian President Mubarak has ruled with an iron hand over the entire 30-year period of his Presidency since emergency powers were accorded the central government following the assassination of Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat. The demands of the protesters, made in a peaceful manner for the most part, have been strikingly similar to those we have witnessed recently being put on display on the Washington Mall. In making that comparison it does appear that the ideas of individual liberty and the goals of democratic self-government are universal characteristics. Would that things would be so simple, but apparently that is indeed not the case.
When our steadfast obligation to protect our ally Israel and the umbrella-like influence of the Muslim Brotherhood are added to the mix, things become decidedly more complicated. Egypt, under Mubarak, has stood fast in its agreement to help maintain peace among the surrounding Arab countries and Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood, aside from expressing ideas contrary to the long-term health of Israel, has developed a large following in the Arab world through its provision of a variety of social services, education and healthcare that the people have demanded. So, once again we find ourselves caught between a trusted but heavy-handed authoritarian ally and the passionate citizens of his country who are sounding the themes so dear to Americans of freedom and democracy.
When news first arrived of these brave citizens taking to the streets to demand democratic government Americans seemed to side with these protesters as kinsmen. But the moment that President Obama appeared to be leaning toward the cause of the protesters, and to ever so gently prod the 82-year-old Mubarak to peacefully and quickly conclude his 30-year reign, many conservatives lowered the boom on him for preparing to “abandon” a powerful ally who has helped to buffer Israel against her belligerent neighbors. Thus, we come to the big question: Does the United States stand fast in its cherished role as encourager and even guarantor of Democratic government for any people who desire it or do we instead maintain our embrace of a dictatorship that is willing to share the burden of protecting Israel?
History tells us that this is not the first time this dilemma has faced us in the Middle East, and there is no certainty that there is a right answer. The United States was for years a trusted ally of the authoritarian Shah of Iran, Resa Pahlavi, until his ouster in 1979 by a revolution of the people who were demanding the right to choose how they would be governed. Current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an avowed enemy of the West, was chosen by democratic election. The same is true of the popularly elected, often militant Muslim Hezbollah party in Lebanon and the similarly situated Hamas party in Palestine. There was even the time in the early 1980s when the United States closely collaborated with, and supplied weapons to, Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein in the hopes that he would resist the spread of the budding Iranian theocracy.
The issues boil down to these: The democratic moral interests of the United States versus our strategic interests or perhaps more simply democracy versus stability. How can the United States continue to be an advocate of democracy when citizens of the Middle East repeatedly elect the “wrong governments” or when those leaders who are least democratic serve our interests best? No wonder it confuses us when, in times like these, leaders and the people who oppose them both look to the United States for approval.