Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Birth of an Authentic Egyptian Democracy

I doubt folks need reminding that Nicholas Kristof's a bleeding progressive, but he's on the ground in Egypt, and he's lived there previously. And from the majority of video clips I've seen and posted, the bulk of this account rings true. "Exhilarated by the Hope in Cairo":

As I stand in Tahrir Square on Monday trying to interview protesters, dozens of people surging around me and pleading for the United States to back their call for democracy, the yearning and hopefulness of these Egyptians taking huge risks is intoxicating.

When I lived in Cairo many years ago studying Arabic, Tahrir Square, also called Liberation Square, always frankly carried a hint of menace. It was cacophonous and dirty, full of crazed motorists in dilapidated cars. That was way back at a time when the then-new Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, talked a good game about introducing democracy.

Now the manic drivers are gone, replaced by cheering throngs waving banners clamoring for the democracy they never got — and by volunteers who scrupulously pick up litter, establish order and hand out drinks and food.

“I’m going home right now to get food and drinks for the demonstrators,” one middle-age man, Waheed Hussein, told me as he hopped into his car near Tahrir Square shortly after curfew fell. While talking to me, he allowed a hitchhiker to jump in, and then the hitchhiker decided to bring back supplies as well. With great pride, the two new friends explained to me that this would be their contribution to the birth of an authentic Egyptian democracy.

In short, Tahrir Square has lost its menace and suddenly become the most exhilarating place in the world.

Yet one thing nags at me. These pro-democracy protesters say overwhelmingly that America is on the side of President Mubarak and not with them. They feel that way partly because American policy statements seem so nervous, so carefully calculated — and partly because these protesters were attacked with tear gas shells marked “made in U.S.A.”

The upshot is that this pro-democracy movement, full of courage and idealism and speaking the language of 1776, wasn’t inspired by us. No, the Egyptians said they feel inspired by Tunisia — and a bit stymied by America.

Everywhere I go, Egyptians insist to me that Americans shouldn’t perceive their movement as a threat. And I find it sad that Egyptians are lecturing Americans on the virtues of democracy.
Read the whole thing.

I've been reading Kristof's reporting at The Lede. He's got this recurring premonition that the tanks are going to roll like in Tienanmen in 1989. That's distressing. But as far as I can tell, the military is standing firm against the use of force against the demonstrators. That move is probably designed to clear the way for Suleiman's transition, but it's still a good sign. The military brass view the revolt as reflecting legitimate demands for reform. A crackdown would throw the country into the abyss. Death and destruction could spiral. What Kristof ignores, of course, is the threat from the Muslim Brotherhood. It's still early. Today's "march of millions" could be the turning point. It's depressing that the Obama administration continues to dawdle. Time is of the essence, at least in showing that the U.S. stands in solidarity with the populist street in Egypt. Waiting too long may sow distrust at U.S. intentions. The U.S.-made tear gas canisters are bad enough as it is. As I've said throughout my reporting, all of this is dangerous for the Middle East and especially Israel. But still no one knows. From the hardline anti-jihad bloggers to folks like John Bolton, it's all speculation at this point. So again, say some prayers for Egypt's democracy. A majority of the population wants stability and good government. Over time I'm confident that --- with good leadership and U.S. backing --- we'll see an anti-Islamist regime emerge that puts the welfare of Egyptians front and center.

So, here's hoping Nicholas Kristof's intuitions prove correct.