I was a Political Science, International Studies, and World Languages triple major in college, and one of the languages I studied was Arabic. I considered studying abroad in Cairo before I picked Beijing instead, but the Middle East has still been an area of great interest to me. Plus, my best friend's family is from Algeria, which gave me a personal connection to the region.
The story of the recent uprisings really starts decades ago, but for simplicity's sake, we'll say it started with Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in December. Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself on fire out of desperation, tortured by the endless cycle of poverty and loss of dignity the young population of Tunisia has been stuck in. His act (crazy, terrifying, and sad as it was) sparked such a furor that lead to weeks of riots that actually forced out the autocratic ruler of Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali, after 23 years of control.
Note: Self-immolation is not a Muslim practice. It is a political protest and suicide is actually against the teachings of Islam.
Now, here's what's crazy about this revolution -- An autocratic leader was toppled in a matter of weeks by a mass movement without a clear leadership. Young people stayed in contact through Facebook, Twitter, and kept up with news through Al-Jazeera online.
Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia, the majority of the protests in Egypt right now are focused on removing Hosni Mubarak from power, who has been the president for almost 30 years. He "won" re-election with 80% of the vote last election cycle -- from manipulation and corruption, of course. In response to the protests, Mubarak has pledged not to run again in the fall. But that isn't enough for many protesters, who want to see him removed from power immediately.
We know that nature abhors a vacuum. When a leader is toppled, who takes their place? One huge problem in Tunisia and Egypt is that the autocratic leaders squashed opposition so successfully that there aren't opposition parties and leaders ready to step in. There isn't even an infrastructure in place to hold real, unbiased elections. Some politicians who were already members of the government are trying to gain power, but most citizens don't want to see members of the old regime (like Vice President Suleiman) continuing to hold power.
The military will be an important force, and right now they're staying out of the fray and neither supporting Mubarak nor ousting him by force. Militaries often step in to keep order during times of governmental transition, but problems arise when soldiers become police officers. Nobody wants a military state.
Egyptian protesters are saying that this revolution is NOT about religion, and that's true. However, that doesn't mean that religious groups won't try to take advantage of the chaos. Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood (an important opposition party in Egypt that has been rendered toothless by Mubarak) is not taking a very active role, because they want the protests to be secular and to come across as a moderate party, in hopes of increasing their electoral chances later on.
The United States is in a tricky spot. First of all, Mubarak has long been an American ally. And the U.S. has been burned by supporting revolution before, such as when we revoked support for the Shah of Iran, only to see him replaced by a fundamentalist, Anti-American government that was hardly more democratic (as I'm sure you know from the election debacle of two years ago). Obama is walking a fine line, trying to get Mubarak to step aside, without pushing him too far and inciting him to clamp down and fight the protesters with violence. The Obama Administration is leaning towards an "orderly transition" facilitated by Vice President Suleiman, even though Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has made it clear that Suleiman is not an ideal reformer (for example, he's made comments about Egypt not being ready for democracy). Our Mideast allies, including Israel, are urging the U.S. not to support immediate transition for worries of destabilizing their countries.
Ah, that's the question.
A (relatively) leaderless revolution is scary and exciting at the same time. It's exciting because it represents the people taking control of their own government, potentially leading to liberal democracy in the Middle East. But it's scary because it can lead to instability and various groups and people will vie for power, some of whom will be quite hostile to American interests (as well as the best interests of the Egyptians). People can't live in anarchy and chaos, and eventually, they'll look for a system that can create order. With the long-standing authoritarian governments gone, religious groups are the most well-organized (think of the Taliban in Afghanistan imposing order after the Soviets pulled out, America didn't step up, and there was a power vacuum that needed to be filled). There's also the issue of burnout. Ordinary people who are the backbone of the revolt can eventually lose steam. They can't take off work (if they have it) every day to go protest. That loss of momentum is exactly what Mubarak is hoping for. But Mubarak is only the beginning -- once he's gone, a real challenge remains in reforming Egypt's political system.
I think a clear lesson here is that the United States must stop supporting undemocratic leaders just because they ally themselves with American interests. If democracy is an American interest, as we claim it is, we can't support authoritarian leaders. And yet we will continue to do so, because we want to maintain stability in tumultuous parts of the world as well as nurture good relations with important trade partners (like China and OPEC countries). But as soon as those governments are challenged by democracy, we're stuck in a terrible position. We saw it multiple times during the Cold War in South America and the Middle East.
I heard Mike Huckabee say the other day that this revolution in Egypt is "frightening." That's such a sad way to look at it. We shouldn't be frightened by people wanting to control their own governments and lives. We should carefully consider our policies and yes, there may be a ripple effect through other non-democratic Arab countries, but we should celebrate the basic idea that citizens deserve to rule themselves. Muslims, too. They don't need to be kept in check by authoritarian governments. We can't say that people should be allowed to govern themselves in democracy unless they are wont to elect leaders we disagree with.
Man, there's so much to talk about. I could definitely keep going. There's more to discuss about the nature of the protests, the political climate and culture of Egypt, the potential ripple effect throughout the Middle East, and America's foreign policy options and who is advocating what positions to take (not to mention the fundamental differences between liberal internationalism, realism, and neo-conservatism... which are fascinating).
Keep up with my fave sources:
Daily Show and Colbert Report on Hulu =)
What are your opinions on the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt? Are you interested and keeping up with the news? Do you agree/disagree with my point of view?
Plus, if you would like to hear more of my opinions or you have any questions about what's going on, the U.S. government response, or really anything political, let me know and I'd be happy to write about it!