There’s nearly a breathlessness attached to the speed with which events are unfolding in Egypt.
For those who have traveled there through the years, there is, on the one hand, no surprise that the weight of the years of repression, corruption and stagnation finally gave way. Middle Easterners, like all of us, desire to live in a just, free and flourishing society. But the size of the demonstrations and the commitment to nonviolent protest, all with very little obvious leadership, is both shocking and inspiring.
Of course, not all popular uprisings end with the creation of a better society, in spite of the legitimate grievances that may prompt them. The question now is whether the moment we are in is more akin to Iran in 1979 or Eastern Europe in 1989. There are those among us who already fear the worst - a takeover in Egypt by radical Islamists who will unleash a campaign of persecution against the sizable Christian minority, impose a draconian version of Islamic law, abrogate the Egyptian peace agreement with Israel and assume a hostile position toward the United States.
But it feels so much more like those heady and unbelievable days in the winter of 1989 when sclerotic Soviet-style communism, dissonant as it was with the moral universe, collapsed in spectacular fashion on television as we all watched in amazement. As Condoleezza Rice, whom I served under at the State Department, is fond of reminding us: what once seemed impossible now seems inevitable. And this is a bit what it feels like watching the people of Egypt and the greater Middle East march peacefully in their own streets, openly defying security officials in ways most had scarcely dared dream of just a few weeks ago.
So while the worst is far from inevitable, the path to a more free and open society will not be easy. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left a legacy in which the development of civil society and political opposition parties were forbidden, except within the confines of the mosque, which gives the Muslim Brotherhood an organizational advantage. And there is historical precedent for organized minorities seizing the reins of power in periods of transition or chaos.
So what should those of us outside of Egypt do? First, we should remember that what’s happening in the streets of Cairo is not about us (and neither is it about Israel). Second, this is an important time to be reminded of the peril we court when our foreign policy neglects to remain true to our fundamental values. I cannot say it any better than President Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who in The Washington Post offered this: “Democratic revolutions can be defeated by violence or co-opted by radicals. But again, we are seeing that it is neither principled nor prudent for America to base its strategies in the Middle East on the denial of rights we value.”
When we ignore the legitimate grievances of oppressed people and side with their authoritarian rulers in the name of our own self-interest, we should not be surprised when the downtrodden, after throwing off their chains, see our actions as betrayal of the very principles we claim to hold dear. Maintaining fidelity to “inalienable truths” is no easy task in a fallen world, but to the extent that we can in humility reflect them in word and deed, we are the better for it.
This piece originally appeared in Capital Commentary.