Human Rights for All: Tunisia, Egypt, Next?
February 12, 2011 is a day that will stand out in history books as a day of triumph for
human rights. On that Friday, the people’s revolution in Egypt succeeded in eliciting the
resignation of long-time dictatorial “president” Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of protests. This
success is remarkable, not just as a testament to the power of peaceful protest, but because of the lasting implications it will have on Middle East politics.
Hosni Mubarak ascended to the Egyptian presidency on October 14, 1981 after the assassination of former president Anwar El Sadat. Since then, Mubarak has ruled Egypt with an iron fist in a state of “emergency law,” initiated immediately following Sadat’s assassination. Emergency law allowed the Egyptian government to arrest and detain its people without charge. Freedoms were quickly curtailed for the Egyptian people. Political opponents to the Mubarak regime were jailed. Media and literature that in any way criticized the regime were banned. Under Mubarak, government accountability to the people disappeared. Police corruption was rampant. Reports are now surfacing that Mubarak amassed over $40 billions during his time in office, siphoned from the Egyptian treasury. Although elections were routinely held during Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, the results were widely understood to be rigged, with Mubarak usually coming away with over 90 percent of the vote. The penalty for running for office against the National Democratic Part was frequently years in prison.
Few in Egypt were happy with Mubarak, but fewer knew how to turn their dissatisfaction
into tangible change, without facing punishment from the regime. Protest and strikes were
common in Egypt, but they produced no results. Egyptians unhappy with their government grew accustomed to screaming without being heard. Then the events in Tunisia changed everything. On January 14, 2011, after weeks of protest, the Tunisian people succeeded in ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In this victory Egypt saw possibility.
Tens of thousands of Facebook users indicated that they were attending a day of protests
in Cairo’s downtown Tahrir Square on Monday January 25, and indeed thousands turned out.
Wary of angering its people after seeing what happened in Tunisia, and in an apparent attempt to appease the people, the Egyptian government was slower than usual to dispatch the notorious security forces typically used to quell protests. That slight delay was all protesters needed to gain momentum.
By Wednesday the 27, an alarmed Egyptian government had shut off all Internet access
in the country in an attempt to hinder protesters’ ability to organize. The attempt backfired as
thousands more protesters flooded the streets, bringing with them scores of international news reporters. The world watched as security forces tried and failed to disband peaceful protesters using tear gas and billy clubs.
A week into the protests, media reports of “pro-Mubarak” protesters clashing with “pro-
democracy” protesters began surfacing. Journalist on the ground, including the New York
Times’ Kristof and CNN’s Ben Wederman and Anderson Cooper, as well as dozens of other
journalists and protesters sending reports from Tahrir via Twitter, the “pro-Mubarak” protesters were really thugs paid by the regime to create the appearance of discord among the Egyptian people. For the first time, there was violence on the streets as these thugs beat journalists and honest protesters.
The Egyptian protesters were not swayed by this attempt by their government to create
confusion, and they continued to flood Tahrir in larger numbers. When it was announced that
Mubarak would address his people on Thursday, February 10, for just the third time since
protests broke out, speculation was widespread that he was planning to announce his resignation. When Mubarak finally appeared on state television over an hour after he was slated to speak, he delivered a speech widely perceived as derogatory. He promised to launch an investigation into the deaths suffered by over 300 protesters at the hands of his police forces and so-called supporters and promised not to yield to the “international pressures” calling for him to step down.
The crowd of over a million in Tahrir Square waited just minutes into Mubarak’s speech
to start booing him and holding their shoes up to him in protest. Energized by their anger, the
Egyptian people continued protesting through the night and into the morning. As Friday went on, more Egyptians flooded the streets. By mid-afternoon, several million people had left their
homes in a show of dissatisfaction. In the early evening of Friday, February 11, 2011, Mubarak’s recently appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman came on Egyptian state television and delivered a 20-second statement that injected the Egyptian people with jubilation and forever changed the face of Middle East politics. Mubarak had stepped down from office, ceding control of the country over to a military council. The crowds in Tahrir Square erupted into celebration that lasted through the night and the following day.
Although the mood was almost exclusively celebratory in the days immediately
following Mubarak’s removal from office, caution slowly started to creep into the public
consciousness once more after just a few days of military rule. In its first week in power, the
military remained reluctant to respect demands of protesters, including requests for a new
constitution, free media, and a majority civilian transitional government. Slowly, as people
continue to see the military conduct the country in much the same way as Mubarak did, fears are building that this new military regime plans to continue Mubarak’s policies without Mubarak.
Now more than ever, international influence will play a crucial role in the future of hope
for democracy in Egypt. Egypt receives $1.5 billion in United States aid each year. In the days
immediately following the start of the major protests, President Barack Obama, Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, and others in the Obama administration doggedly avoided issuing any
statements that either condemned the Mubarak regime or supported the Egyptian people. Clinton stated that the Mubarak regime was “stable,” and Vice President Joe Biden claimed that Mubarak was not a dictator. During the heat of protests, Obama delivered a statement claiming that the struggle was one that had to be resolved among the Egyptian people, essentially claiming an intent for the United States to remain neutral. But inaction from the United States government in this revolution does not amount to neutrality. The status quo has been allowed to stand for too long in Egypt because of United States support, so inaction now puts the United States on the side of the regime it has been financially supporting.
The Egyptian people are not likely to forget that the United States – a country that claims
to stand for freedom and justice – chose to support a corrupt, repressive dictator over millions of peaceful, democracy-seeking Egyptians. The Obama administration’s actions in the next few weeks will determine just how severe and lasting the damage done to United States-Egypt relations will be.
The United States government largely props up the Egyptian military, so the administration has a duty to pressure the Egyptian military to accept the legitimate demands of protesters and to ensure that the military does not abuse its provisional power. The United States must now tie its aid to Egypt on the willingness of the regime to listen to its people and to grant them their basic dignity, rights, and liberties.
Many in the United States have argued against supporting democracy in Egypt and the
Middle East because doing so could jeopardize the “peace” with Israel. This may be the case. For decades the United States’ Middle East tactic has revolved around a strategy of paying off
corrupt, repressive dictators, to support a policy toward Israel and Palestine that is viewed
negatively by many of the people of the Middle East. Since its creation, the United States has
been unwavering in its support of Israel. For a long time, Israel was the largest receiver of United States’ aid (now it is third behind Iraq and Afghanistan). Many Arabs in the Middle East view United States’ support of Israel as unjust, but their leaders accept it because of the money they receive from the Us government. The people’s views are not as influenced by the exchange of money between governments. In Egypt, for example, many people were agonized to their Palestinian neighbors dying in Gaza without being allowed to cross the border into Egypt, due to a blockade strictly enforced by Mubarak. A free Egypt is a lot more likely to lift the Gaza blockade.
Now, as the spirit of revolution reverberates around the Middle East – from Yemen to
Libya and from Bahrain to Iran – one thing is clear: the people of the Middle East are being
stepped on by their United States-supported dictators. They are ready to take control of their own countries. So, now the United States will most likely be forced to adopt a more fair Middle East policy that reflects the wishes of all people of the region, not just of Israel. This can really only be a step in the right direction, as the Middle East heads for a more free, democratic future.
Human rights are rights, entitlements to all people, regardless of citizenship. The citizens
of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries around the Middle East are taking that seriously, and it is time that the United States government does the same.