Egypt and Democracy

Posted Feb. 01, 2011, at 7:26 p.m.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the ongoing protests in Egypt is that they have been so peaceful. Credit for this goes to the protesters, who have mostly been chanting and holding signs. And, more astonishingly, to the military, which has said it will not use force against the masses of people gathered in Cairo.

While the outcome of mostly peaceful protests in Egypt remains unknown, it looks more and more likely that the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak will soon end. With the preceding revolt in Tunisia and unfolding events in Jordan, democracy, it appears, has a future in the Middle East.

That democracy may not look like what the United States has in mind — radical groups could emerge as playing leading roles — but the fact that the people of the Middle East are asserting control of their countries, like those in Eastern Europe before them, is encouraging.

Credit for this turn of events should go to former President George W. Bush, his deputy national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, argued in The Washington Post.

He recalled the former president’s November 2003 speech: “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?” President Bush asked. “Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?”

Later in the speech marking the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush said: “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.”

Those words seem prescient now.

It was resentment and stagnation, in large part, which sparked the revolt in Egypt. Young men without jobs — a large portion of the Egyptian population — were motivated to take to the streets to demand changes that would allow them to build a more autonomous future.

Likewise, the uprising in Tunisia began when a college-educated young man set up a fruit cart after he was unable to find a job. The government shut down his enterprise saying he didn’t have a permit. He set himself on fire and later died.

The revolt that resulted drove Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile.

The recent events in the Middle East also give credence to the Obama administration’s approach of letting pro-democracy movements take hold on their own, without a violent push from America, which had mixed results in Iraq.

The U.S. will likely face tough decisions such as whether to continue aid to Egypt and whether to continue to call for changes from the Mubarak regime or simply call for its ouster as events play out there.

For the time being, however, it is wise to offer support to the protesters without issuing ultimatums.

“This is the start of the rest of my life,” one young man told CNN over the weekend. “As cheesy as it sounds, that’s exactly how I feel right now.”

This jubilation, rather than international intervention, is, for now, the region’s best promoter of democracy.

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