We are witnessing a popular revolution in Egypt – the first in the 5,000 year history of that country. This is a new day not only for Egypt and the Middle East, but for democracy worldwide.
The Egyptian people are rightly demanding their democratic rights and urging President Mubarak to go. The president announced today that this will be his last term in office, and that he will relinquish power in September. It isn’t likely the people will let him stay that long.
Over a million Egyptians are now determined to remain in Tahrir Square until the regime accepts their demands for a new and democratic government. We must show them that we understand why they are there. The events in Cairo and throughout the country may not be about us, but they are about our values.
The demonstrators have been peaceful and disciplined. Even when the police withdrew temporarily, there was no chaos and little looting. The demonstrators have demonstrated to the world that they did not come to destroy, but to build their country. And from now on, Egypt will no longer be denied their contributions to its present and its future.
These events are particularly important because Egypt is the center of Arab politics and culture worldwide. One in four Arabs calls Egypt home. The country is known to Arabs as “the mother of the world.” The size of the country, the importance of its Islamic institutions, its strategic location and its dynamic culture (including an enormous international fan base for its film and music industries) supports Egypt’s vast influence in the Middle East, Africa and beyond.
But the country is desperately poor, and its people know their standard of living doesn’t reflect the riches of Egypt’s patrimony. More than 40 percent of Egyptian 84 million citizens survive on less than two dollars a day.
Too often, the United States has chosen security and stability in the Middle East at the expense of development and freedom. This point is underscored when we look at our assistance to Egypt. While we have provided $1.3 billion in military aid, our non-military aid economic support funding totaled only $250 million. It isn’t just about money, but our assistance to Egypt should at least reflect our support for the Egyptian peoples’ struggle for rights we too fought a revolution to obtain.
Egypt has long supported U.S. goals in pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians and we should continue to encourage that support. But we cannot measure our relationship with Egypt through that lens alone.
In the short term, the message to the Egyptian government should be: Do not use force on unarmed people, respect their right to assemble peacefully, and stop blocking the access to communication that is a basic right of free people.
Longer term, we need a policy that reflects the present day. The current policy, shaped by the Cold War and the exigencies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is outmoded. The world has changed, and the moribund peace process shows that now is the time to challenge old models.
Some analysts raise the issue of the extremism of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. But Islamists have not been central to the current drama. There is a diverse mix of forces in play including a strong, secular youth movement. The Army as an institution that unifies Egyptians can also play a stabilizing role to give the process some breathing room. Ultimately we have to support a process of pluralism and democracy over the stagnation and exclusion that Mubarak’s cronyism has built.
We can start by offering to assist the Egyptians in building democratic institutions, and make available our expertise and our material resources at a level that reflects our values. We should no longer be underwriting massive military budgets in the Middle East. Real security comes with liberation from poverty. We should not endorse any candidate, or we’ll be seen as picking the winner. We should make sure Egypt knows that any aid – military or otherwise – will be conditioned on the creation of a more just, transparent and accountable government.
The popular dimension of the protests shows that Egypt has changed irrevocably. In the past (notably, following Mubarak’s accession to the presidency in 1981) it was possible to have a temporary period of political reconciliation and then a return to autocratic business as usual. Not anymore.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.