Last night, my husband Michael Kennedy and I wrote an essay for Jadaliyya suggesting that the Polish Round Tables of 1989 might present a model for those hoping to move the Tahrir protest movements forward. He is an academic who works on Central and Eastern Europe, I on the Middle East. The difference in our world regions, I often tell him, is in your part of the world, the US supports protest movements; in my part of the world, the US stands in their way. I’d hoped Egypt’s January 25 movement would be an exception, would represent a change not just for Egyptians but for US relations with the Arab world. Whatever the outcome of the protest movements in Egypt will be, the hope that the Obama administration will embrace and support them is quickly fading.
Tonight, I find myself already planning a lecture I know I will have to give one day to students in my Modern Middle East History courses… a lesson on why the democracy movement in Egypt failed, a lesson on the horrible consequences of that failure. You see, I’ll tell them, in the winter of 2011 tens of thousands of Egyptians rose up. There were 80 year olds who remembered the reign of King Farouk and young girls in pigtails. There were Christians and Muslims, rich and poor, law professors and bawabs. They wanted a secular democratic peaceful revolution. For 30 years, their President Husni Mubarak had controlled Egypt. He could declare war, dismiss and select the prime minister, dissolve parliament, shape foreign policy, control banking policy, etc etc. The opposition movement had risen spontaneously so it had no official leaders, but over time a group of men came to speak on their behalf. There was the lawyer Ayman Nour, the UN diplomat Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel Prize Chemist Ahmed Zewail.
Even though the protestors were peaceful and unarmed, they endured vicious attacks by pro-Mubarak thugs. These same thugs beat, arrested, and intimidated journalists from CNN, NYT, ABC. Anderson Cooper was beaten up on camera for all to see. In response, American administration officials asked both sides to remain peaceful. As if we couldn’t see for ourselves which side was armed and violent and which side was using carton boxes and sheet metal to shield their bodies from harm. As if hundreds of thousands of bleary-eyed viewers haven’t been glued to Al-Jazeera watching it all unfold in real time.
On a few occasions since January 25, the US President has appeared on the air to say he hoped for a peaceful resolution. The US Secretary of State, a close personal friend of the Egyptian president’s, explained it would all take time. So on the night of February 5, as darkness fell over Tahrir Square, the US administration finally let us know what Hillary Clinton meant by reform in the Egyptian context. The newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman was in charge. Suleiman, who has been a close ally of Mubarak’s, who has headed the dreaded Egyptian intelligence services, was to take over “the attempt to defuse a popular uprising” the New York Times reported. German and British leaders endorsed the US plan.
On his first day as the officially anointed leader of the movement to divert a popular revolution, Suleiman refused to meet with most of the leaders of the opposition movement. He spoke to a few of them long enough to let them know he refused even the most basic of the opposition’s demands: removal of Mubarak from office and shifting away from one party rule. He did, however, vow to return the police, who have been beating and arresting protestors, back to the streets of Cairo by dawn. So I dread that the day will come when I will have to explain to my students the bad outcome that is now seeming inevitable. If the US doesn’t support the protestors, I’d said in a taped interview at the Watson Institute on February 1, their worst fears might well come true.
I will have to explain to my students that when the Arab world tried to rise up to create a secular constitutional democratic government that represented the will of the people, Western powers joined forces with their oppressors. Tahrir Square was abandoned. President Obama, you told Egyptians in June 2009, “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” President Obama, suppressing revolutions doesn’t make them go away either. They return, time and again, usually with a vengeance.