What we saw happen in Egypt over the past few weeks and the final joyous hours was a citizen-led movement. It was a worker-led movement as well, with female beneficiaries of micro-finance and youth entrepreneurs and the working class taking to the streets to air their grievances about their personal conditions. It was not a Western-led coup, or something the West even had a whole lot of leverage to effect. In his final days, the Mubarak regime tried to claim a grand conspiracy of foreign operatives and satellite news channels angling to push them out, a play to nationalist fervor. But that’s not what happened. The people in the street toppled them.
President Obama spoke to that today in his remarks:
By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change. But this is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s a beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity that has defined these last few weeks. For Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day [...]
One Egyptian put it simply: Most people have discovered in the last few days…that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore, ever.
This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.
And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history — echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice.
As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.
Today belongs to the people of Egypt, and the American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people and the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in.
The Administration spent most of the past few weeks catching up to events. But this statement puts them where they need to be. Much needs to be done to help Egypt prepare themselves for the next stage of democracy, and there’s no guarantee they will get there. The White House needs to reverse decades of US policy in the region and support the will of the people of an Arab country, not the will of whoever is best for business and security. Earlier in the speech, Obama did mention some specific steps – lifting the emergency law, revising the Constitution – that Egypt must take. But more than that, he needs to allow them the space to achieve a meaningful democracy without interference. Obama’s other statement about Egyptian ingenuity and how that can transition to economic opportunity for the country, is hopeful in this regard.
The best part of this statement is the restraint. Not only the celebration of non-violence and moral force, but the restraint of an American leader reluctant to put an American face on Egyptian events. We don’t control the world and we shouldn’t. We couldn’t wave a magic wand to make Hosni Mubarak go away; a mass of people strained and struggled to do so. I prefer this foreign policy to the one which announces the bombs set to drop unless one dictator – but not another – gives in to demands.
I don’t want to glorify this speech too much, or the Administration’s handling of the matter – they included some serious missteps, and should be ready for criticism if they try to boost Omar Suleiman again. But for the moment, this sounds right.