Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Good riddance, Mubarak. The Egyptian people demand to be free.

With a popular, pro-democratic uprising in full swing, and with their economy facing disaster, Egyptians took to the streets in huge numbers today in Cairo. In a country ruled for decades by a brutal authoritarian tyrant, it was simply extraordinary. The outcome of the uprising has been unclear, but change seemingly was at hand.

And then it came.

With the writing on the wall, President Hosni Mubarak, who has lost both popular and military support, finally announced that he would not stand for re-election -- not that Egyptian elections under Mubarak are free and fair:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has said he will not stand for re-election in September, as protests against his rule grow.

Speaking on state TV, Mr Mubarak promised constitutional reform, but said he wanted to stay until the end of his current presidential term.

The announcement came as hundreds of thousands rallied in central Cairo urging him to step down immediately.

US President Barack Obama said that Egypt's transition "must begin now".

As indeed it must. For while the American right is responding to the situation in Egypt with pro-Mubarak and therefore pro-tyranny paranoia, claiming that opposition leader Mohammed El Baradei is an Islamist and that, without Mubarak, the country will be taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood (which it misrepresents), there is good reason to believe that Egypt -- a relatively modern, secular state -- will emerge from this "crisis" with a moderately progressive government committed to liberty and democracy.

Glenn Beck may object to that, and so may the extremist pro-Israeli neocons, but the Egyptian people, having lived through decades of oppression, have every right to remake their country as they see fit, particularly if the future they envision is one that any liberal democrat should be able to embrace. (For the right, this is the usual hypocrisy. They talk up democracy in Iraq, emerging from a war they started, but Egypt must remain under a tyrannical yoke because they'd prefer to have a strongman in power there?)

President Obama was "clearly frustrated by... Mubarak's intention to retain his hold on power until elections later this year," as the WaPo puts it, but, as I have argued before, he deserves enormous credit for handling the situation so well. Without appearing to be too interventionist, given the delicate relationship the U.S. has both with Egypt and its neighbours in the Middle East, he carefully indicated U.S. support for the opposition, and for reform, and pushed Mubarak to leave:

In brief remarks at the White House, Obama made no mention of Mubarak's announcement that he had decided not to stand for reelection. Instead, Obama said he had told the Egyptian president in a telephone call that this was a "moment of transformation" in Egypt and that "the status quo is not sustainable."

Obama's message appeared carefully calibrated to avoid publicly calling for Mubarak to stand down, while making clear he should stand aside. Administration officials say they are seeking a transitional government, with or without Mubarak as its titular head, formed by representative reform leaders and backed by the Egyptian army that will address legitimate grievances, restore stability and plan for a free election. 

As the NYT notes, Obama sent an experienced envoy to Egypt on Sunday, former diplomat Frank Wisner, to urge Mubarak to step aside:

At a two-hour meeting at the White House last Saturday, Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser; William M. Daley, the White House chief of staff, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon E. Panetta; and other officials coalesced around a strategy to start trying to ease Mr. Mubarak out, an official said.

Mrs. Clinton, officials said, suggested that the administration send Mr. Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt who knows Mr. Mubarak well, to deliver a message directly from Mr. Obama to the Egyptian leader. Officials said Mr. Wisner urged Mr. Mubarak to declare publicly that he would not run for re-election. But Mr. Wisner has extended his stay in Cairo, officials said, and may have a follow-up meeting with Mr. Mubarak if events seem to demand a quicker exit.

At the Saturday meeting, the officials also agreed that Mrs. Clinton would start calling for "an orderly transition" when she taped a round of interviews for the Sunday talk programs. Administration officials were already smarting from not coming out more fully in support of the protesters earlier.

Yes, Obama and others in his administration could have voiced their support for the opposition sooner, but, again, there was a need to proceed with caution, not least because the situation was so unclear, and remains so, and because, like it or not, Mubarak has been an important U.S. ally for a long time. What was needed was for the president to monitor the situation closely and then act, on little notice, when appropriate. He did that, and it seems to me he did it exceptionally well.

And so while conservatives lash out against those courageous Egyptians taking to the streets to shake off the yoke of oppression, and place themselves decidedly on the wrong side of history, Obama emerges from this situation -- which, admittedly, is still not over -- with his statesmanship strengthened.

But back to Egypt.

History is being made on the streets of Cairo and throughout the country. What we are witnessing is the force of freedom rising up against tyranny. It is a proud moment for Egypt, and those of us who genuinely wish well for the Egyptian people should applaud what is happening.


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