While some American protesters might chant "this is what democracy looks like," the people from Tunisia and Egypt are showing us what democracy looks like. The people there have either tired of or were never interested in watching American Idol and have thus taken to the streets to show the government who is in charge--a concept that is alien to the American people. Another concept that is alien to the American people, especially conservatives, is that this taking control is done without the threat or use of violence. Until they were attacked by supporters of President Mubarak, the protests have been peaceful. By persistent participation, the people of Tunisia and Egypt are showing us the way of deliverance from one's trials, if only we are willing to learn.
But this show of people power is not opening to all rave reviews. For some have determined that what goes up, must come down. The American naysayers, most of them being conservatives, rallied behind Mubarak and against the people. The reasons ranged from fully supporting Mubarak because of the benefits he brings to Egypt to defending Mubarak's dictatorship as a necessary evil--portraying Mubarak as the only alternative to government Iranian Islamic "Republic" style. Of the conservatives I read, only Jonah Goldberg showed any optimism, as tepid as it was, for the anti-government demonstrations. None, but Goldberg, showed any awareness that American support for Middle East dictators makes our fears of extremist rule possible if not inevitable.
On the left, Chris Hedges also showed a discomfort with the demonstrations in Egypt. He sees them as possibly ushering in an Islamic rule. But unlike most of his conservative counterparts, he acknowledges the connection between American use or support for brute force and corruption with extremist rule.
But the pundits were not the only ones who opposed the anti-government demonstrators. As previously mentioned, Mubarak supporters, some of them government employees, brutally attacked the demonstrators. These supporters were hoping to derail Egypt's Democracy Train by using violence in an effort to either discredit the demonstrators should they respond in kind, motivate the people to prefer a peaceful status quo in contrast to a turbulent change, or stop the momentum of the peaceful demonstrators as their numbers and activities kept increasing the public pressure on Mubarak to immediately resign.
Though we Americans like to see most conflicts as a war between the left vs the right, it would be a mistake to do so here. The real opponents in Egypt's turmoil are those who favor authoritarian rule vs those who favor democratic rule. Those who favor authoritarian rule express support, either explicitly or subtly , for Mubarak. Those who favor democratic rule see what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia as an example of what could happen where they live if enough people are willing to practice a full democracy. Those who support the anti-government, pro-democracy Egyptian demonstrators show that support in whatever ways they can.
Whom is America supporting? That depends on which America you are referring to. The American government has long been a supporter of authoritarian rule outside of our country so long as it provides some strategic, political, or economic benefits for itself or its sponsors. But the moment that an authoritarian figure or group becomes a liability, then the support stops. Perhaps the poster boy for an authoritarian recipient of conditional American support was Saddam Hussein. During the 1980s, Hussein received material support and public accolades even during some of his most worst atrocities. But once Saddam invaded one of America's rich friends, he became both a political and military target.
Now the question is which side is our government supporting? Have they now been embarrassed into supporting a democratic rule after having supported authoritarian rule for over 30 years or are our officials publicly merely expressing support for democracy but secretly working for authoritarian rule? This sounds like a question for Wikileaks.
Then how about the American people, whom do they support? Outside of some Egyptian-Americans and those on the left, it seems that most Americans prefer to be spectators. Though they might cheer for one group or the other just as they would root for a team they were watching play on TV, the struggle in Egypt is not important enough to most Americans to move them to even sit on the bench let alone enter the playing field.
What can we learn from all of this? If we are willing, we can learn that a true democracy consists of more than just voting every x number of years against the greater of 2 evil candidates. Democracy is about speaking out and taking risks. Democracy does not allow injustice to forever hide behind laws and procedures passed to serve those in power. Democracy sometimes acts outside the box when the grievances are severe enough. And perhaps most important lesson we can learn is that Democracy requires solidarity to work. The anti-government protesters consist of a wide cross-section of Egyptian society and they are all standing together for each other.
But the Egyptian freedom protesters have something to learn from American activists. It is imperative that they learn that they have only begun to travel down the Yellow Brick Road of Democracy. The path to Democracy which they have stepped onto is a road whose zoning laws prohibit the building of residential units. At best, its travelers may occasionally rest overnight at a cheap motel. There is no retirement for those who work for democracy. That though the initial activism of these brave Egyptians has provided some impressive turnouts, it will all be in vain if their activism is not both constant and persistent. When we think of the Iraq War protests, they began big but they lacked both sufficient quantity and perseverance. And thus our politicians continue to feel free ignore the protesters. In addition, these Egyptian protesters must find ways to invite their opponents to sit with them at the table of Democracy. They must resist the temptation to treat their opponents in the same way that their opponents have and are treating them.
If we are smart, we will be warmed by the rising sun of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement. But should we be content to live vicariously through others or should we produce our own light and heat? To do the latter means that we must imitate, and then expand on, much of what the demonstrators have been doing in Egypt. To enjoy the benefits they are working for, benefits we are unaware of missing, requires that we accept a change in our comfortable routine.
Are we ready to do that? Do we want to stand against authoritarianism both at home and abroad?