How does the head of state of the oldest of modern democracies, born of a revolution, approach the uncertainties of this revolutionary moment? Many are quick with criticism of, but also with appreciation for, President Obama’s apparent conservative realism.
Ross Douthat wrote in Monday’s Times: “Obama might have done more to champion human rights and democracy in Egypt before the current crisis broke out, by leavening his Kissinger impression with a touch of Reaganite idealism. But there isn’t much more the administration can do now, because there isn’t any evidence that the Egyptian protesters are ready to actually take power.”
On my side of the political tracks, opinion is different. My friend and colleague, Elzbieta Matynia, posted on her Facebook wall an open letter: “Dear Barack, Dear Mr. President, Why are we still hesitant to join the Egyptians’ cry for their rights and dignity? The longer we wait, the more doubt there is around the world in the sincerity of our commitment to democracy. Why are we failing to appreciate that these determined people are trying hard not to resort to violence? Too often, geopolitics has smothered the hopes of an entire people!”
A more extended application of these questions was developed in a piece by Asli Bali and Aziz Rana, “Supporting democracy in the Middle East requires abandoning a vision of Pax – Americana.” But I wonder about such judgments of the President and the Western leaders. Are these judgments responses to actual policy, or are they responses to the politics of gestures as examined by Daniel Dayan in his post last week?
Gestures that are thought to reveal what is going on in closed negotiations between the authorities and some oppositional figures, but may not actually be representative, may be more significant as expressions in and of themselves, as Dayan suggests. Their appearance is significant. They have a power, while they may not be telling an underlying story.
As President Obama seems to gesture toward human rights, democracy advocates in Egypt and abroad are heartened, while America’s traditional allies in the region express dismay and push back. But as American officials seem to respond to such pressure and gesture in the other direction, e.g. when Secretary of State Clinton indicates that Mubarak’s resignation might complicate the transition, human rights and democracy activists and those in Egypt, who have their suspicions about the United States to begin with, are highly critical, but regional allies are relieved . From this, observers conclude that there is “dithering at the White House,” as reported in the Guardian.
But perhaps the mixed message is the democracy supporting point, that there is really no alternative given the state of the negotiations going on now between the Egyptian authorities and some representatives of their opposition. Further, given that the committed protesters have not coalesced politically, as Hazem Kandil put it in his post yesterday, not creating a situation of dual power, or as I put it in my first post on the social movement in the region, from Tunisia to Yemen, not developing yet a capacity to say something beyond “no” to the existing power, beyond Mubarak must go.
Supporting peaceful and democratic transformation requires Mubarak and the military to stand down. That involves delicate negotiations between the authorities and the opposition, and the support of outside powers. There is a need to support the emerging democratic forces, but also a need to remain on relatively good terms with the Mubarak regime so that they can be encouraged to peacefully relinquish power.
In response to my dear friend, Elzbieta: Dear President Obama, please voice support for democratic principle consistently, remain on good terms with Mubarak and company to help show them the door, and respect the emerging alternative power as it supports democratic principles.
P.S. New positive signs: The democratic gesture in the age of ordeal journalism which appeared in an interview with Google executive and activist Wael Ghonim seems to have re-energized the opposition forces, moving against the tide of returning to everyday life. And protests seem to going beyond Tahrir Square, to other locations around the city and country. A capacity for concerted action and a political strategy is developing and shifting the political balance.