Revolutionary double standards

By Yaroslav Mikhaylov

World News
World News

It is rare to see a revolution unfold, and in the past month we have seen two. Tensions in Tunisia exploded Dec. 17 after Mohammed Bouazizi, a simple shopkeeper, set himself on fire to protest police brutality, government corruption and repression, as well as widespread unemployment. The entire country erupted in protests, eventually forcing Tunisia’s dictatorial president-for-life Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to offer concessions ranging from cabinet re-shuffling to a promise to step down from power in 2014. None of his offers placated the protesters, whose goal was now to remove the dictator from power completely. On Jan. 14, the public pressure became too much, and Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s dictatorship was over, and a caretaker government has been installed while the Tunisian people hold elections and review their constitution.

More recently, a similar public opposition movement has swept across Egypt. On Jan. 25, Egypt’s National Police Day, thousands of protesters took to the streets in major Egyptian cities, including Cairo and Alexandria.

After the protesters refused to disperse despite several clashes with police, the Egyptian government cut off all Internet and most mobile phone access in the country. Shortly thereafter, the Egyptian army was deployed to major cities to restore order and suppress the protesters. Few clashes between military personnel and civilians have been reported – a result of Egypt having a conscription-based rather than a professional military.

Yet, despite all of this, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – whose 30-year term is the norm for the region – refuses to cede power. His dissolution of the government was a meaningless gesture that could not quell the nation’s one demand – his ouster.

President Obama and the State Department welcomed the Tunisian revolution with open arms and pointed to it as a triumph of democracy over dictatorship. Meanwhile, U.S. support for Egypt’s almost identical revolutionary fervor is scant and carefully worded. When speaking of Tunisia, Obama praised the Tunisian people and their dedication to democracy. However, when discussing Egypt’s situation, the conversation rotated around Mubarak and how he could resolve the current crisis. The protesters are mentioned only as a component to an ultimate solution that Mubarak and his government must surely find.

Why such a difference in tone?

Tunisia is a small country mostly known for its tourism. Mubarak is a strategic partner for the U.S. and a recipient of a significant amount of U.S. aid as a result of his self-described position as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Approximately $1.5 billion worth of aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the military, is sent to Egypt every year.

However, it’s not Islamic fundamentalism that is repressing the people of Egypt; it’s its own brutal dictatorship that the U.S. supports. In his speech on the issue, President Obama mentioned that the Egyptian government should institute reforms to address the dissatisfaction of the Egyptian people. But at no point did he mention Mubarak giving up any of his dictatorial powers.

The U.S. stands at a crossroads now. Flowery rhetoric about how much the U.S. values democracy abroad is meaningless if it is not backed up by similar actions, like a withdrawal of U.S. support for the Mubarak regime until it caves to the demands of the Egyptian population. Mubarak is seen by the Egyptian people as the cause of the corruption and inequality which keeps so many Egyptians mired in poverty while allowing Mubarak’s private clique to use an entire island in the middle of the Nile as their pleasure club. Giving up power would mean an end to this lifestyle for him and his supporters, so he will cling to power for as long as he has any support – U.S. support included.

 Democracy is risky business; you never know who will end up in power. If the U.S. backs the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, it risks losing Mubarak as an ally, should he manage to remain in power. Even if he is ousted, the resulting government may end up unfriendly to the U.S., or more likely as pliable as Mubarak’s regime. However, in order for democracy to flourish, risks must be taken.

So the U.S. is faced with a choice; support another risky experiment in democracy, or play it safe with the friendly neighborhood dictator. If Obama’s answer is the latter, as his recent addresses on the issue seem to suggest, then the U.S. is clearly not dedicated to democracy, but to American-minded dictatorships.

Yaroslav Mikhaylov is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]