A people’s yearning for freedom and a say in their country’s affairs has been fulfilled, at least temporarily, and that has been our wish for people the earth over for two centuries and the actual foundation of our foreign policy, at least nominally, since President Jimmy Carter formulated it three decades ago. We have not adhered to that policy with much precision, as our persistent support of Mubarak and other authoritarian regimes shows, but it is what Americans have wanted.
Our exhilaration at the victory of Egyptian people who went into the streets to demand the personal freedoms and democratic institutions that Americans enjoy must be muted by the reality that we cannot control events there and that the democratic voices on the square may not be able to control them either. Successful uprisings against tyrants have not always turned out well, especially in the Middle East, and one form of tyranny has often been replaced by another with a different social or religious cast.
The history of our relations with the Middle East is not a uniformly proud one. The Eisenhower administration directed the overthrow of the new democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and the establishment of an autocratic government under the shah. We could only watch when the people overthrew the shah and set up a religious autocracy with a few democratic trappings. The bitterness over the U.S. role half a century ago still drives the resentment in that sad land and troubles our affairs in the region.
The United States has invested heavily in the Egyptian regime, some $1.3 billion a year. It continued after Mubarak replaced the murdered Anwar Sadat and turned it again into a police state. Three American presidents, Clinton, Bush II and Obama, treaded softly on the human-rights issue because Mubarak — who resigned Friday on the anniversary of the Iranian revolution — was one of only two regimes in the region that stood beside us, publicly, with Israel. All three presidents nudged Mubarak softly — Obama a little more resolutely—to reform his government, grant more liberty and move toward true democratic institutions. Now we are at the mercy of mysterious tides. We can only hope that the truly liberal democratic forces in that movement prevail.
There is some reason to expect that our investment even in authoritarianism may pay off. The Egyptian military, the recipient of vast sums of U. S. aid and technical assistance, seems to be in charge. The sympathies of the Army, from the soldiers on the streets to the high command, have seemed to be with the protesting masses. The Army command played a role in the Mubarak’s finally relinquishing power, and it promises to vindicate the strivings of the protesting throngs. The military leadership has trained in the United States for two generations, and there seems to be an international camaraderie, an admiration for American values and an appreciation for the military’s role in protecting democracy and individual freedoms.
The democracy protests in Egypt and throughout much of the Middle East have their genesis in western institutions and the technology spun off them, including the Internet and all the manifestations of social media. It was Wikileak’s release of American diplomatic cables that spurred the protests that overthrew the autocratic rule in Tunisia, which has spread across much of the region. The claims by Mubarak and Iran’s president that western forces were behind the democratic turmoil were right. It simply was not intentional.
Mike Huckabee had joined the former vice president in insisting that the United States embrace Mubarak’s regime both privately and publicly. He apparently feared that Muslim extremists would control a democratic government. A hostile theocratic government could follow in Egypt, but not if it is truly democratic.