On the situation in Egypt

February 3, 2011

As the world watches events unfold in Tahrir Square, I will add my own brief comment. The people who have gathered there this week to demand Hosni Mubarak’s resignation have done a very simple but profound thing: they are asserting their human dignity, their right to live as free human beings under a government of their own choice. Some of them are now paying for that assertion with their lives, as Mubarak’s hired thugs spray the square with machine-gun fire. The courage displayed by the Egyptian people during the past few days will not be forgotten. And their assertion of their right to political freedom poses a question to the rest of us: do we support that right? The tepid response of the American government to what is happening on the streets of Cairo is shameful; our hypocritical inaction in this crisis will also not be forgotten. President Obama needs to tell Mubarak to leave Egypt, now.

Not long ago, I got into a debate on this blog with a man for whom I have a high regard, Dr. Michaël de Verteuil; I found it difficult to accept the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace. I still view that proposition, taken in the abstract, as dubious. Yet those of us who are Christians, who would like to think of Christianity as a religion of peace, are all the more obligated to acknowledge and encourage the aspirations for peace that we find in others; we betray our faith, we blaspheme our God, when we fail to recognize our common humanity in the face our neighbor. The Egyptian people are asserting that common humanity, and are asking to be treated, by their own government and by others, as human beings. Those of us who are Christians know that the source of that ineradicable sense of human dignity, the basis of all political freedom, is the image of God that exists in all of us, because of which the human person can never be made into a mere means to an end.

Egypt is a land that Jesus visited as a child; people there remember that fact. As that land gave him shelter when he was under persecution, may he now grant shelter and protection to the people who are being attacked in Tahrir Square by government thugs, and may he grant the people of Egypt a responsible, democratic government in place of the dictators they have had to endure for more than one generation.

3 Responses to “On the situation in Egypt”

  1. bekkos Says:

    Robert Fisk, quoted in this morning’s Democracy Now:

    “One of the blights of history will now involve a U.S. president who held out his hand to the Islamic world and then clenched his fist when it fought a dictatorship and demanded democracy.”

  2. Rebecca Says:

    maybe … when all is said and done, I think we’ll learn that the pressure applied by the US to Mubarak in private was steady, sharp, and critical in what will hopefully prove a stable transition to a more democratic society.

    We can sometimes measure whether someone is walking a very delicate middle path in a difficult situation by the degree to which he is criticized from both sides. The nasty and pointed criticism from some elements on the right directed at the public support that both the President and Secretary of State have expressed for change in Egypt witnesses that this is not cut and dried.

  3. bekkos Says:

    I hope you’re right. But it is hard to avoid the impression that the Obama administration has been warily sitting on the fence during this crisis, unwilling to support a change in government until it is sure that it gets what it wants. And there is reason to fear that what it wants is some form of continuation of the authoritarian status quo; the person who appears most likely to take over in any interim government, the newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, is a CIA-trained intelligence chief who was instrumental in the American program of “extraordinary renditions.” I confess that the choice of this man as heir apparent does not give me great confidence in the prospects of genuine democratic reform, or in the character of those negotiations that, as you say, are occurring behind the scenes.

    The United States gives over one and a half billion dollars per year to Egypt; most of that is military assistance (much of it returning to America as subsidies to military contractors). We essentially bankroll their armed forces; it is not as though the United States has no leverage over Egyptian policy. It is hardly likely that the choice of Suleiman to succeed Mubarak was made without Washington’s approval. It suggests that America’s primary concern at this point is to preserve its own strategic interests while allowing a veneer of democratic change. Might Suleiman actually work towards establishing a viable democratic society in Egypt? I can’t rule out that possibility, though the behavior of Egyptian security forces in recent days makes it seem highly improbable. As I say, I hope you’re right in your assessment of the pressures being applied in private. But, if the recent Wikileaks disclosures give any clue, there is much reason to worry that behind-the-scenes negotiations are largely aimed at preserving the status quo of power relationships in the region, and have little to do with supporting the Egyptian people’s aspirations to self-government. I hope that I am wrong about this. But, if that is in fact how the administration is handling this crisis, then it is being very, very foolish, and all of Obama’s fine words to the Muslim world about democracy will be universally reviled as hollow.

    I know that moderation is a virtue, and I know that Obama and Clinton have to face the barkings of hound dogs of various ideological breeds. (If Senator McCain wants to describe the movement for democratic change sweeping the Middle East as a “virus,” he’s entitled to his opinion; it says a great deal about his own dedication to democratic government.) But, on this occasion, I think Obama needs to moderate his moderation, lest it come to him, and to us, according to the word to the Laodiceans: “because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16).

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